Tricia Derges, a member of the Missouri House of Representatives and doctor, has been indicted by a grand jury for – among other things – allegedly injecting people with amniotic fluid and telling them mesenchymal stem cells made it a miracle cure. Derges has pled not guilty, and IFLScience cannot assess the accuracy of the charges. However, the case brings attention to growing use of unproven and dangerous stem cell treatments.
The case against Derges is being taken by Tim Garrison, the U.S. Attorney for Missouri's Western District. Garrison alleges Derges acquired stem cell-free amniotic fluid and told patients it contained stem cells that would cure a variety of conditions, charging them four times what the fluid cost her to inject them with it. Garrison charged Derges with false statements over the use of the fluid, as well as illegal distribution of controlled substances and wire fraud in relation to other activities at the clinics she runs.
Among long posts on her Facebook page professing her innocence, Derges posted a picture of David and Goliath, writing, “I actually thought that I was making a difference. What I didn’t account for was how much satan would fight back.”
Whatever the truth of the allegations in Derges' specific case, by charging a state representative, Garrison has highlighted what is definitely a growing problem: deceptive use of stem cell “therapies”.
Multipotent stem cells have the remarkable capacity to convert into the cells that make up many bodily tissues. The hematopoietic stem cells have been used for decades to treat leukemia with well-proven results. Hundreds of other applications are either under investigation in the laboratory, or currently in clinical trials, but a much smaller number have been approved by America's FDA and equivalent bodies worldwide.
Understandably, many people don't feel able to wait, making them vulnerable to quack doctors for whom stem cells are the 21st Century snake oil. Unlike embryonic stem cells, which often originate from abortions, amniotic stem cells are seen as an alternative acceptable to “pro-life” individuals. However, having been discovered more recently, research into them is less advanced, making any therapeutic value speculative.
Dirges' vocal opposition to abortion presumably made amniotic cells attractive to her for this reason, but Garrison alleges the fluid Derges was using didn't even contain stem cells. Moreover, he claims the University of Utah – where Derges bought the fluid – told her that, so she would have known it couldn't possibly have been effective.
Derges gained a medical degree from the Caribbean Medical University in Curaçao and ran a series of low-cost medical clinics, where volunteers saw patients and recommended to her what medication to prescribe. Although licensed as an assistant physician, Derges was not accepted into a post-graduate residency program and was not licensed as a physician. She fought to change licensing rules, and ran for Missouri state District 140, narrowly winning the Republican primary before being unopposed last November. Since being elected, Derges has made changing the law on physician licensing her first priority.
In a statement, Garrison alleged Derges used the fluid on patients with everything from Lyme disease to erectile dysfunction and kidney disease, despite the improbability a single fluid would cure such different ills. Although Derges' clinics are famous for charging just $5 for an ordinary visit, the costs of this treatment averaged $40,000 per patient.
The program came to Garrison's attention after she appeared on television claiming the same amniotic fluid should be used to treat COVID-19 and making similar claims on Facebook.