Hope Cells

The Valley’s medically frustrated are buying stem cell injections south of the border. Desperados rounding up a miracle cure, or just getting
roped in?

It’s 6 a.m. and 76-year–old Gwen Wheeler is standing on the dirt sidewalk of a border road, waiting in a line with 20 other patients for her annual stem cell injection. Wheeler is two blocks south of the U.S. border and three hours away from her Sun City winter home, one of three she owns, her lifestyle funded by a hefty pension. She camped last night in her van, Mexican street dogs wandering the road nearby.

“I see a notable difference after the stem cell injections,” Wheeler says of the shots she buys for her rheumatoid arthritis. At $1,000 a pop, Dr. Jose Diaz Barboza, a Cuban-trained Mexican doctor, has been shooting Wheeler with “stem cells” for three years now. “I’d been trying different medications in the U.S. When I heard about the cells, I thought they sounded good,” Wheeler says.

Known to his patients simply as Dr. Diaz, he is a self-proclaimed expert in the yet to be fully researched field of stem cell therapy.

Wheeler isn’t the only repeat customer to cite dramatic healing at the tip of Diaz’s syringe. On one visit, Wheeler says she saw an elderly woman on oxygen wheeled into Diaz’s office. The woman came out pushing her own wheelchair, her oxygen tank riding in the seat.

Wheeler is one of a growing number of the sick and ailing from the Valley and across the continent making their way to Algodones, Mexico, in search of a medical miracle. They line up on a street dotted with abandoned cars and stray dogs, waiting hours to pay for “stem-cell therapy” in a hijacked Mexican dental office.

For many, the dirt-railed road is a welcomed corridor at the bleak dead-end of the wellness trail, when the hope of healing may cloud the windows of conventional wisdom.

As the international scientific community ponders the safety, ethics and logistics of stem cell therapy, Dr. Diaz is busy healing the lame. While scientists at multibillion-dollar bio-tech firms map out stem cells, Dr. Diaz is offering miracle cures like a modern-day snake oil salesman. Everyone involved seems happy enough.

Selling Hope

At the dusty crotch of Mexico, California and Arizona sits the small border town of Algodones, about three hours from Phoenix and a 10-minute drive from Yuma, where retirees bed at hotels. The hotels, this time of year, are all booked up. Like other towns along the Arizona-Mexican border, in Algodones hope and pain relief often come in half-priced bottles of medications. Americans sit around munching cheap tacos and sipping dollar cervezas.

Stepping under the white gate at the California-Mexico border is something akin to stepping past the gate at Disney World. Pastel storefronts line the streets, roamed by uniformed guides who, in their best English, direct travelers to eye doctors, dentists and pharmacies.

“You want Valium? I can get you any drug you want,” one whispers just 20 feet into the country. Fifteen paces across the border you can buy all that is forbidden in the U.S.: Zoloft, Valium, Lipitor. No prescription, no problem. Want stem cells? Ask for Dr. Diaz, and any guide can point you to his office, though it may be difficult to verify the stem cells are any more authentic than the Gucci purses you’ll pass en route.

One block south of Algodones’ largest pharmacy, eight Americans and four Mexicans sit in Dr. Diaz’s air-conditioned waiting room. It’s 4 p.m., and they’ve been here since 6:30 a.m., when they lined up out front. Diaz is known for the leisurely time he spends with each patient, something they appreciate after waiting for as long as twelve hours in line.

A 13-inch TV broadcasts Mexican soaps through fuzzy reception, and attractive Mexican receptionists — young, female and sporting white medical scrubs — drone between Diaz and his waiting patients.

Every morning a new batch of at least 10 patients is waiting outside. Most are repeat customers. Diaz doesn’t take appointments. He doesn’t advertise, and he certainly doesn’t lack patients, both American and Mexican who can pay his fees. He does take checks but refuses to let anyone buy their way forward in the waiting line. The moneyless Mexican widow in line ahead will be seen first, no matter how many fat billfolds try to pry her out of line.

The Healed

Sitting awkwardly and smiling at the Mexican children playing “Simon Says” on the mosaic-tiled floor in the waiting room, Bill Thompson, 62, of Oklahoma, is visiting Dr. Diaz for his fifth time in as many years. Standing six-foot-four, Thompson wears denim overalls, a “King’s Lone Tree Feed” cap with a camouflage bill and size-13 boots that have tromped on farms from Michigan to Louisiana.

Thompson speaks softly through a deep baritone voice. He’s generous and unassuming, sneaking candy to a five-year-old Mexican boy waiting with his mom. About 10 years ago Thompson came down with a cold. He ended up in an ambulance, headed for the hospital, where he learned his cold was actually COPD, or chronic emphysema. Thompson has a lifelong, incurable lung disorder for which American doctors can only offer asthma inhalers.

Years into his life-altering wheezing illness, one of Thompson’s COPD acquaintances visited Dr. Diaz. He’s one of at least three miracle patients who have reportedly pushed their own wheelchairs out of Diaz’s office.

“I’ve told Dr. Diaz I wan’ a chair next to him in heav’n,” Thompson says in a sort of Huck Finn drawl. “Cuz I rilly feel he’ll be sittin’ right by the Lord. I guess, if you did what he said, he could cure about anythin’.”

Thompson and his wife drove 1,400 miles over the weekend and didn’t make it in time to see Diaz. They’re waiting through appointments again today. Like five other patients, Thompson is a retired rural American. Two more are farmers from Illinois. Another owns a ranch in California, and numerous Arizona retirees also make the trek during the winter months.

Jerry Armstrong, 67, has come all the way from Idaho and has been under Diaz’s care for three years. Armstrong says the healing from his COPD is simply indisputable. “Doctors in the States say this is (expletive),” he says, “but it works.

“I think my stem cells come from sheep. They work, so I don’t have too many questions,” Armstrong adds. Like Thompson, he says his first trip to Diaz changed his life. “We felt like we were at a dead-end. After the stem cell shots, I hardly need my inhaler. We were told I’d have to be put on oxygen right before we came down here. It’s been three years, and I’m still not on oxygen. Sitting here in the waiting room, it’s like watching little miracles.”

Neither Thompson nor Armstrong knows their cell shots are not actually stem cells, but both are convinced of their healing. Both equate the cells they receive with the magical “stem cells” touted in mass media reports. In a private interview, Diaz admits the animal cells he injects into Armstrong and other COPD patients are in fact not stem cells.

The Healer

When Bill Thompson hears the squeak of Dr. Diaz’s office door at the end of the hall, he knows it’s his turn. After a 1,400-mile drive, Thompson has waited one day and 12 hours to see the doctor.

“Ba-da-ba—ba-ba,” Diaz sings as Thompson walks into his office, a bookshelf-lined room with a mini-fridge, a medical cabinet, a few chairs and a computer. Dr. Diaz, 46, doesn’t look older than 40, with thick dark hair, dark skin and compassionate eyes. He shoots a crumpled piece of paper into the trashcan, holding his follow-through like a basketball-playing frat boy.

Diaz spurts rhythmic Spanish with an exiting patient and shifts mid-sentence to English for Thompson. Diaz worked 6:30 a.m. to 9:45 p.m. yesterday. Today he’s worked 13 hours and will see four more patients before calling it a night.

Thompson, like most COPD patients, will have a vial of sheep or horse lung cells injected into his chest cavity. “There is a difference between stem cell therapy and live cell therapy,” Diaz says privately. In the waiting room, patients don’t seem to know this. Most believe they’re getting “stem cells.”

Dr. Diaz is either a very, very good conman, or he genuinely cares about his patients and has no qualms about experimenting on them. Live cell therapy, an almost 70-year-old alternative treatment, shoots cells from corresponding animal organs into humans. It is a far cry from stem cell therapy and is generally disregarded by the medical community because the human immune system detects and attacks the foreign cells before they can begin healing. Patients from Europe to Mexico have died from viral and bacterial infections after live animal cell therapies.

Regardless, Diaz’s blissfully ignorant patients are happy and, in their opinion, healthier than they ever were under the watchful eye of conventional U.S. doctors. “If your story is negative publicity, don’t you dare put my name with it. Dr. Diaz has only done good things for people,” Mickey Martinez, a Yuma resident shouts. Diaz’s clientele may not know the difference between live cells and stem cells, but they do know they feel better after treatment.

Diaz does inject human stem cells into some patients, usually fetal stem cells from umbilical cords or placentas. Earlier today he fired a blood-red syringe of umbilical cord cells into a patient suffering from kidney failure. The patient can’t find a transplant and figures the alternative shot at health is well worth the risk. Diaz hopes the cord-blood cells will morph into new kidney cells, but he has no clinical proof they will.

Diaz is no clinical researcher. He sports a binder of printed Internet articles about stem cells, mostly reports of promising trial applications. Questioned about his treatments, he produces a Southwest Airlines Spirit magazine article about stem cells. This must work with the retirees. Somehow, if Diaz’s treatments aren’t enough to heal his patients, the hope they inject seems to be.

A few injections, a check for around a grand and an hour later, Bill Thompson exits. “I love you doc,” Thompson tells Diaz.

Crossing the Line

One-hundred-seventy-seven miles due west of the Algodones clinic, stem cell biologist Dr. Evan Snyder, a specialist at the Burnham Institute in La Jolla, California, is anything but happy to hear an Algodones doctor is offering “stem cell therapy.” Snyder hasn’t heard of Diaz before, but he has heard of stem cell therapy scams from Tijuana to Ukraine.

“Conceivably, the biggest giveaway is how does he administer the stem cells and where, and what diseases he claims to treat,” Dr. Snyder says. “If he puts them into the belly, under the skin, into the blood vessels, it’s all bull,” he says.

These are, in fact, the ways Diaz administers his cells, even the authentic cord-blood stem cells. Dr. Snyder says it’s impossible for cord-blood cells to turn into kidney for the patient Diaz was seeing, though he can’t rule out that they could produce some unknown positive effect.

“How is he going to treat COPD? Is he going to have them inhale the cells?” Snyder asks sarcastically.

Embryonic stem cells are the most potent and promising of all stem cells, the ones researchers hope will one day cure paralysis and Parkinson’s. Snyder says no one in the world, anywhere, is clinically injecting embryonic stem cells yet. It’s simply too dangerous. Diaz later acknowledges this, confirming he only injects less-promising cord-blood, adult and animal cells.

But out in the waiting room, Diaz’s patients seem to think they’re getting the same kind of cells they’ve heard about in media reports, magical cure-all embryonic cells.

Like gunpowder and the atom, embryonic stem cells offer untapped and unknown potency. They are as dangerous as they are powerful. Since an embryonic stem cell hasn’t been programmed to be kidney, bone or brain, an untreated embryonic cell injected into the brain could grow into bone just as likely as into brain. “This is the goal of present day stem cell research,” Snyder says. “The field is simply making sure that the ‘taming’ of the embryonic stem cell is complete and irreversible before considering any work involving real patients.”

In his office, Diaz points to studies in the U.S., including one at the Arizona Heart Institute, in which American doctors are clinically experimenting with cord-blood cells in limited treatments for certain organ conditions. “They’re already doing this in the U.S.,” Diaz says, equating his cure-all injections with supervised clinical trials.

“I’m willing to go on the record, and say the guy’s not legitimate,” Snyder says of Diaz. “It’s a bunch of quackery at best and larceny at worst. It’s a real scam in order to finagle money out of desperate people and prey on their vulnerability. I actually think it’s immoral.”

Could Everyone Be Wrong?

Perhaps the biggest anomaly of Dr. Diaz is his seemingly healthy, happy clan of returning patients, most who heard about Diaz from other satisfied customers. While U.S. doctors deride Diaz’s methods, U.S. retirees line up faithfully at his door.

Dr. Snyder attributes Diaz’s apparent success primarily to the placebo effect. “This placebo effect is astoundingly important and powerful. That’s one explanation,” Snyder says. “Anyone who’s followed Parkinson’s has seen some of the fetal cell studies where even some who thought they were receiving fetal tissue and didn’t healed just as well as the ones who did.”

Much of Diaz’s quick-healing results can also be traced to dangerous use of non-stem cell drugs and treatments deemed out-of-bounds in the U.S. For example, the “stem cells” Diaz shoots into Arizona retiree Gwen Wheeler’s arthritic wrists are actually a U.S.-produced prescription not approved for use in wrists. Synvisc is FDA-approved for knees only, but Diaz says he injects the drug all over the bodies of his rheumatoid arthritic patients, regardless of FDA limitations.

As promising as the stem cell frontier is, stem cell biologist Dr. Snyder says there’s no chance umbilical cord cells could grow into anything but blood-derived cells. In other words, no new kidney or lungs can form from direct “stem cell” injections.

“It is conceivable that some of these cell types have some impact by producing certain factors,” Snyder says. “However, it would entirely depend on how they were administered. If they are simply injected into the organ directly, they will not survive and hence are useless.”

Dr. Snyder cautions, “If somebody is asking you for your own money, to write a check, it’s a scam. If it’s a legitimate clinical trial, it’s paid for by a company or the government. If it’s a bona-fide treatment, your insurance will pay. You shouldn’t ever have to write a check.”

Diaz’s happy patients could be benefiting from placebo effect or from dangerous alternative treatments. They could also be risking deadly infection. Nonetheless, the line of the hopeful will be waiting at his front door tomorrow morning.