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That’s Right, You’re Not From Texas (but Texas Wants You Anyway)

Carl Elliott is the author of White Coat, Black Hat: Adventures on the Dark Side of Medicine. Elliott is a professor at the Center for Bioethics at the University of Minnesota. His work has appeared in The New Yorker, Atlantic Monthly, the Believer, Slate, the London Review of Books, and the American Prospect. His six previous books include Better Than Well, Prozac As a Way of Life, Rules of Insanity, and A Philosophical Disease.

This post originally appeared at the Chronicle of Higher Education's Brainstorm blog.

Bigstock_Texas_State_Flag_Closeup_4812033If Texas ever decides to secede from the Union, I’d be mighty tempted to go along. Lightnin’ Hopkins, Molly Ivins, Bob Wills, Kinky Friedman, the 1966 Texas Western basketball team: Without the Lone Star State, American life would look pretty anemic. When Steve Earle declared, “Townes Van Zandt is the best songwriter in the whole world and I’ll stand on Bob Dylan’s coffee table in my cowboy boots and say that,” I nodded and said, “Amen.”

Most of all, I like Texas crazy. There is no better value for your entertainment dollar. As a native South Carolinian, I claim some expertise in the topic. My brother says: What Mississippi is to the poverty index, South Carolina is to the index of crazy people. (Our unofficial state motto, provided by James L. Petigru in 1860: “South Carolina is too small to be a republic, and too large to be an insane asylum.”) For many years now, my Texan friend Kathryn Montgomery and I have had a contest over which state has a higher proportion of crazy people, and for many years, thanks to our remarkable politicians, South Carolina has been flat-out killing it. Over the last few months, however, Texas may have pulled ahead.

The reason is stem-cell tourism. It started when Gov. Rick Perry had a surgeon friend treat his back problems with adult stem cells processed by RNL Bio, a South Korean company famous mainly for its commercial puppy cloning business and “cosmeceutical” preparations such as Dr. Jucre’s Million Stem Cell Magic Concentrate (available online for $1,220.) Pretty soon an entire stem-cell operation called Celltex Therapeutics was up and running, partnered with RNL Bio and backed by a group of Texas oil and gas investors. Unfortunately for the company, there has been a minor bump in the road called “medical research.” Reputable stem cell researchers say there is little medical evidence to show that adult stem cells are effective for the conditions they are supposed to treat (which, according to a RNL Bio spokesperson, range from wrinkles to Alzheimer’s disease). Even worse, the cells may be dangerous. As Paul Knoepfler, a stem cell researcher at UC Davis pointed out recently, “The worst case scenario, even for autologous transplant, is death. The second worse case scenario is severe, life-changing injury.”

6144You don’t need a marketing degree to understand that “death” and “severe, life-changing injury” are not going to sell a lot of stem cells. So those words don’t appear in the patient testimonials RNL Bio uses to market its services. In fact, the stem cell treatments are illegal in South Korea, where RNL Bio is based, so the company partners with facilities in other countries such as China and Japan to exploit regulatory loopholes. Patients with debilitating chronic illnesses can travel to those countries for stem-cell treatment. Last week, we learned from Nature that Texas has joined that list of countries. A Houston doctor told a Nature reporter that he is paid by Celltex to give adult stem-cell treatments to patients with multiple sclerosis and Parkinson’s disease, who may be charged up to $25,000.

A few months ago, I had reason to hope that South Carolina might be making a comeback in the craziness sweepstakes. An assistant professor at the Medical University of South Carolina was arrested by the FBI for supplying adult stem cells to an illegal operation in Mexico. But my hopes fell when I read the FBI press release. His co-conspirators, unfortunately, were from Texas.