"There Is Help Somewhere"
Originally published in Natural Awakenings of Southwestern Virginia Magazine; Used with permission.
Salem businessman and community activist Cabell Brand has long been known for his work to help lift people out of poverty. He founded Total Action Against Poverty (TAP), as well as Head Start for disadvantaged preschoolers, a program that is now used nationwide. He established the first food bank in southwestern Virginia. He is an environmental activist and he offers college scholarships to young people who show a commitment to community service. He also founded the nonprofit Cabell Brand Center for Global Poverty and Resource Sustainability Studies and is the author of If Not Me, Then Who? How You Can Help with Poverty, Economic Opportunity, Education, Healthcare, Environment, Racial Justice, and Peace Issues in America.
But not everyone knows that Brand also supports alternative medicine. Health is essential, he says, to making a difference in the world. "Healthcare cuts through all these things I'm trying to do," he says. "If you don't have your health, you can't do anything else." And, as his life's mission is to help as many people in as many ways as he can, he is interested in alternative methods of healing, which may have the potential to reach more people more effectively, and more affordably. In particular, he is interested in autologous stem-cell therapy, which involves using a patient's own stem cells, or regenerative cells, for healing. But the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA), which states that there is still much work to be done to understand how this works, has yet to approve it.
Stem cells are the regenerative, or "repair" cells that each human body contains, and that are capable of renewing themselves through cell division. "Autologous" means "derived or transferred from the same individual's body," as in autologous blood donation or autologous bonemarrow transplantation. It differs from allogeneic stem-cell therapy, which uses stem cells from a donor. The latter practice has been considered controversial over the years because of its association with material from embryonic tissue, usually donated from fertility clinics. But autologous stem cells come from oneself, drawn from one's own bone marrow, muscle or fatty tissue.
Brand is passionate about getting oversight of autologous stem-cell therapy where it belongs, with individual state medical boards, since the procedure is actually the practice of medicine. The therapy shows promise for quickly helping people with a range of serious, life-threatening diseases, such as diabetes, heart disease, multiple sclerosis and Parkinson's disease (an ailment present in Brand's own family). Brand finds it frustrating that the procedure is not approved domestically, although it has been practiced for many years elsewhere around the world, such as Europe, Mexico and Panama.
He explains the FDA's position thus: Because the removed stem cells are isolated and allowed to multiply over several weeks, in order to be injected en masse into the same patient who produced them, the FDA considers the cells to be transformed and therefore categorizes them as pharmaceuticals. Brand suggests that the real reason is that pharmaceutical companies, who would stand to lose money if the procedure were approved, are pressuring the FDA to withhold approval until more lengthy research is conducted—which could take years.
"When you realize how much money it takes to bring a new procedure into this country, and how long it takes to get FDA approval, it's ridiculous," Brand says. "Someone with a terminal disease hasn't got that much time."
Brand's interest in alternative medicine, and stem-cell therapy in particular, grew out of his involvement with the Colorado-based Foundation for Alternative and Integrative Medicine (FAIM). It was founded in 1998 (and known originally as the National Foundation for Alternative Medicine) by Brand's good friend Berkley Bedell, a businessman and retired Iowa Congressman. Bedell had been helped in his own life by alternative medicine, and with the support of Senator Tom Harkin (D-Iowa), he established the Office of Alternative Medicine within the National Institute of Health (NIH). But over time, it became clear that a foundation independent of government bureaucracy was necessary, and FAIM was born. At Bedell's request, Brand himself became the director.
Joanne Quinn, Ph.D., Bedell's daughter and FAIM's executive director, also is working for change regarding autologous stem-cell therapy. "More people need to understand this," says Quinn. "It could make such a big difference in people's lives." She knows of many cases where patients have sought treatment outside the U.S., and have reported startling results.
"When you see people who have been healed by this, you are amazed," she says. She describes a man in his 50s who suffered from multiple sclerosis and had seizures daily. He was on pain medication and was planning to move to a nursing home when he decided to try autologous stem-cell therapy. Within a month of the therapy, he improved dramatically, and within six months he was 95 percent back to normal. "When we can use our own healing systems to heal ourselves, it's really exciting," Quinn says.
Brand suggests there be an opportunity for people interested in alternative methods to sign a release, then do as they wish. "I would like to see a law passed that gave individuals the opportunity to pursue any medical procedure they want to, to deal with an existing problem," he says. "As long as they understand the risks and won't take any legal measures if it doesn't work."
So what can people do? Brand and Quinn suggest that supporters contact their representatives and senators and indicate that they feel it's very important that autologous stem-cell therapies be rightly classified as the practice of medicine and be available in their home states. It's essential that people speak up about this issue, Brand says, because it holds possibilities for everyone, not just those who can afford expensive medical treatments.
Above all, he believes, autologous stem-cell therapy offers hope. "I'd like for people, especially those with serious illness, to know that there is help somewhere," Brand says. "And to use their influence to help make it happen here."
For more information on this and other alternative procedures, and to make donations to support research and outreach, visit FAIM.org.