Dubai: Standard cancer treatment is among medical science’s epic failures, as the use of toxic chemicals in today's approved therapies only prolong patients' lives a little, but never really cure the disease, a visiting cancer expert said here.

Dr. Samuel Bernal, 67, a Harvard-trained oncologist deemed a “rock star” of molecular and regenerative medicine, and who was himself a cancer patient, cited a number of reasons why cancer treatment is out of step with the latest medical advances during a press briefing in Dubai on Sunday.

“Our immune system is very active and kills cancer cells 99.9 per cent of the time,” he said. “But our bodies are under constant attack. Once a little opening is there for the cancer cells to grow, the immune system needs a boost. And the best booster comes from a patient’s own stem cells, or what is known as autologous stem-cell therapy,” he said.

Cancer, the second-biggest killer in the US (after heart disease) and the third leading cause of death in Abu Dhabi, are among the leading causes of deaths worldwide, with approximately 14 million new cases and 8.2 million cancer related deaths in 2012 alone, according to the World Health Organisation.  The UN agency expects  a 70% spike in the number new cancer cases over the next two decades. 

Dr Bernal, however, said there's hope, citing an array of new molecular and immunotherapies that put the old cancer drugs into question.

He was referring to results of studies that show how techniques that spun out of decades of research into molecular medicine led to a high recovery rate in restoring organ function or organs impaired by disease, injury or aging.

Success rate

“Among the cancer group who already failed standard treatment, the success rate after undergoing personalised molecular therapy is about 40 to 45 per cent,” said Dr Bernal, citing peer-reviewed studies based on up to 700 patients in his practice.

“In medical terms, that is considered an extremely high rate ... given that patients had already undergone the standard treatments before they were treated with personalised molecular medicine,” he said.

In contrast, the survival rate for those who had undergone third-line cancer treatment is only 3 per cent.

“But the more I study the biology of cancer, the more I realise that the US regulatory structure is impeding treatment based on the latest research advances. FDA (US Food and Drug Administration) regulations require a standard treatment for everybody. However, the biology of cancer calls for a personalised molecular therapy, not a one-size-fits all kind of treatment,” he said.

He said a combination of under-regulation and over-regulation can lead to undesirable results — a mushrooming of stem cell therapy scams on one hand, and the strict requirements for certifying standardised treatment across all patients on the other, without regard for the fact that no two persons or cancers are the same, he said.

In the US, there are calls for tighter regulations on the “Stembucks”, operators promising instant cures that end up ripping off patients.

Not anti-aging panacea

Dr Bernal said this crackdown is warranted: practitioners that offer stem cell therapy as a sort of cure-all or an anti-aging panacea — offering them in clinics that have no facilities and trained staff to administer a complex and long-term therapy or in hotel rooms — are peddling false hopes.

But done the right way, stem cell therapy is a proven way for the body to heal itself.

And while Dr Bernal agrees on the need for better regulation to protect patients’ rights and preventing damage to the stem cell field, over-regulation could stifle innovation.

Dr Bernal, a reviewer of Elsevier-published medical journals, took a combative stance against standard cancer therapies when, in the year 2000, he was diagnosed with advanced cancer by accident.

"I discovered it during a standard medical check-up. It showed in my urine. At that time, I didn't feel anything was wrong with me," he recalled to Gulf News.

He suspects that his work as a researcher (he earned a PhD in Biochemical Pathology from the University of Chicago in 1974) may have exposed him to unhealthy doses of radiation before completing his training as an oncologist at Harvard’s Dana-Farber Cancer Institute in 1981.

“For cancer patients who still opt to go for standard treatment, my advice is for them to have their stem cells (from the bone marrow) collected first before their cells are ruined by chemotherapy or radiation therapy.”

He cited the case of a female medical doctor working for a New York hospital diagnosed with an aggressive form of cancer of the fallopian tube who underwent molecular medicine therapy with Dr Bernal’s technique – and survived.

Personalised ‘molecular engineering’

While stem cell therapy has proven not only effective in curing cancer, diabetes and a host of other diseases, the cells are notoriously hard to engineer, as every patient reacts differently.

“Lab machines are easy to buy,” he said. “But stem cells, due to their very nature, are custom therapies. They cannot be mass manufactured, like you do with penicillin or chemo drugs. You have to really take care of stem cells like taking care of a delicate infant inside an incubator. It’s a labour-intensive process, you need a medical staff who have tender-loving care to look after the cells. Sometimes, the cells ‘sulk'.”

Dr. Bernal is part of a team of medical experts on a Gulf-wide swing this week to present a government-backed medical tourism drive, including molecular medicine and robotic surgery in the Philippines, for The Medical City (TMC) network, where he works as a consultant.

A key advantage of the Philippines, he said, is the abundance of medical practitioners trained and willing to work the long hours to custom-engineer stem cells.

“These are relatively more difficult to get in the US, or Europe because of their labour structure. I train medical workers all over the world, but our people are the best when it comes to medical care.”

Dr Bernal was accompanied by urologist Dr Julius Cajucom, head of the robotics surgery program at TMC Manila, dermatologist Dr Mercedes Cruz, who heads of its laser unit, and urologist Dr Cenon Alfonso, CEO of TMC-Clark.