The Baldwin County doctor that treated former Alabama football players with adult stem cells also has treated at least two people diagnosed with amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, also known as Lou Gehrig’s disease.
One of the ALS patients, former NFL football player and college coach Frank Orgel, recently underwent a new stem cell reprogramming technique performed by Dr. Jason R. Williams at Precision StemCell in Gulf Shores.
Former NFL football player and college coach Frank Orgel has been struggling with ALS for about eight years. (photo courtesy Precision StemCell)
Before the injections, Orgel’s health had declined. He could not move his left arm or leg. He couldn’t walk or stand on his own, he said.
Within a few days of having the stem cell treatment, Orgel’s constant muscle twitching diminished, said Bob Hubbard, director of stem cell therapy at the practice. Within weeks, he was able to walk in a pool of water and stand unassisted.
“I think it’s helped me,” said Orgel, who was a defensive coordinator at Auburn under former head coach Pat Dye. “I’m walking in the pool and I used to drag my feet. Now my left leg is picking up.”
ALS is a progressive neuro-degenerative disease that affects nerve cells in the brain and the spinal cord. The progressive degeneration of the motor neurons in ALS eventually leads to death, according to the ALS Association.
Stem cells, sometimes called the body’s master cells, are precursor cells that develop into blood, bones and organs, according to the U.S. Food and Drug Administration, which regulates their use. Their promise in medicine, according to many scientists and doctors, is that the cells have the potential to help and regenerate other cells.
While Williams’ treatments are considered investigational, he has said, they meet FDA guidelines because the stem cells are collected from a patient’s fat tissue and administered back to that patient during the same procedure.
Orgel, 74, said Williams told him it would take between eight months to a year for his nerves to regrow. He is traveling to Gulf Shores from his home in Albany, Ga., this weekend for another stem cell treatment, Orgel said: “I need to get to where I can walk.”
In recent years, Orgel has gone to Mexico at least three times for different types of treatments, not sanctioned in the U.S. At least once, he said, he had placenta cells injected into his body. “That didn’t work,” Orgel said. “I didn’t feel any better.”
These days, he’s lifting weights and swimming twice a week as part of a physical therapy regimen.
Stem cell therapies
The technique performed on Orgel is called InVivo reprogramming, Hubbard said, which is described as reprograms adult stem cells into neural stem cells.
The procedure involves harvesting adult stem cells from the patient’s own fat, which Williams obtains through liposuction. Then, he uses image-guided therapy to insert the stem cells into the patient’s spine.
The patient is prescribed an oral medication that, as laboratory research has shown, causes stem cells to reprogram, converting them into neural stem cells, according to a written statement from the Gulf Shores medical practice.
Because of their experimental nature, stem cell injections to remedy conditions such as damaged knee joints or injured muscles are not covered by insurance. A typical stem cell therapy with Williams costs about $15,000. The collection of the cells through liposuction, he has said, makes up about half of the overall price.
Williams, a board-certified radiologist, said in a previous Press-Register interview that he spent about four years researching various stem cell therapies, including those collected from bone marrow. He said that the adult stem cells derived from fat tissue seemed to bring fewer chances for complications.
Harvesting stem cells from a patient’s own fat removes the need to culture cells, Williams said earlier this year, explaining that culturing stem cells can be a weeks-long process that may expose patients to risks such as infection.
In recent years, professional athletes such as Denver Broncos quarterback Peyton Manning and New York Yankees pitcher Bartolo Colon, among dozens of others, have acknowledged seeking stem cell injections outside the U.S. to try to help heal injuries.
FDA urges caution
Earlier this year, the FDA issued a consumer warning about claims regarding stem cells. In it, Stephanie Simek, deputy director of the FDA’s Office of Cellular, Tissue and Gene Therapies, said that stem cells from bone marrow or blood are routinely used in transplant procedures to treat cancer and disorders of the blood and immune system.
The document cautioned consumers, however, to make sure that stem cell therapy treatments have been approved by the FDA or are being studied under a clinical investigation allowed to proceed by the agency. “There is a potential safety risk when you put cells in an area where they are not performing the same biological function as they were when in their original location in the body,” Simek said.
Cells in a different environment may multiply, form tumors, or may migrate elsewhere in the body from the spot where they were placed, according to the FDA warning.
While several dozen clinical trials involving various forms of stem cell therapies are under way or have been announced around the world, few have included adult stem cells found in fat tissue.
Williams has said that universities and research groups have been slow to move forward because research funding tends to steer toward new drug therapies. He said that he is up front with his patients, telling them that results cannot be predicted.
“This new technique of InVivo reprogramming shows great promise for possibly repairing or regenerating nerve cells,“ Williams said in a written statement. “That means it may open up opportunities for treating several neural conditions such as spinal cord injury, stroke, Parkinson’s and Alzheimer’s disease.”
Williams said the new technique has been shown to help increase the number of neural stem cells that are transferred back into a patient.
“We are hopeful this will indeed help us heal or regrow nerve cells,” Williams said. “However, it is still too soon to really know.”