The search for alternatives
Thirteen years ago, Dr. Samuel Bernal, an oncologist and lawyer, was diagnosed with kidney cancer which had begun to metastasize. “I was so used to dealing with cancer patients and I thought I would know what to do when I myself was diagnosed,” he confided at Tuesday’s “Bulong Pulungan sa Sofitel,” where he was a guest.
But Bernal did not reckon with the psychological and emotional toll that the diagnosis would take on him. “I could not sleep,” he recounted. “I could not think straight.” In time his scientific and medical instincts kicked in, and he began searching for therapies which offered hope for survival, if not a complete cure. When conventional therapies like chemotherapy proved ineffective (his cancer could not be addressed through radiation), Bernal said he began to search medical literature and talk to colleagues about alternative therapies. This was when he started to look deeper into “stem-cell-based therapy,” which uses the body’s own “fighter cells” to combat cancer and other illnesses.
Suffice it to say that, with the use of stem-cell therapy, Bernal beat back his cancer, and although he said one cannot really say for sure that one is “cancer free,” in the years since his remission he has been able to continue his practice and, more important, immersed himself deeper into the study of stem-cell-based therapy and its use to cure disease.
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Today, Bernal frequently visits the Philippines from his base in Los Angeles (though he travels extensively through Europe, too) where he lectures at Ateneo School of Medicine, The Medical City and the University of Santo Tomas. He also serves as a consultant and adviser of the Institute of Personalized Molecular Medicine of The Medical City. Established last year, the IPMM “offers a comprehensive range of clinical and laboratory services in molecular and cellular therapeutics, including molecular profiling and stem cell therapies for both Filipino and international patients.” In the United States he is a professor at the University of California Los Angeles and a consultant with the Cancer Center, an attending physician at Cedars-Sinai Medical Center, as well as a medical entrepreneur with firms engaged in biotechnology services and products.
Lately, the use of stem-cell-based therapies, particularly for aesthetic or cosmetic purposes, has come under fire, with doctors calling for stricter monitoring of the practice, particularly the activities of foreign teams that fly into the country and provide treatments of doubtful provenance outside of accredited hospitals, such as in hotel rooms.
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Bernal himself bemoaned the “bad rep” that stem-cell-based therapy has gained in this country, as well as its other extreme—that it is a miracle cure, albeit extremely expensive, that will not only iron out wrinkles but even restore one’s health, vigor and good looks.
When he began consulting with The Medical City, said Bernal, he resisted suggestions to offer stem cell treatments for aesthetic or rejuvenation purposes alone. But through the years, the Institute was bombarded by inquiries and requests to broaden its therapies. Finally, Bernal said, he agreed to broaden the Institute’s services but only if these were “legitimate, safe and effective.” He demanded that the Institute “assemble a team of board-certified dermatologists and specialists” and saw these services as “an avenue for wellness counseling,” stressing that patients need to recognize that the ultimate goal “is not beauty or longevity, but wellness and aesthetics.”
“What’s the use of having a face free from wrinkles if your heart is in a bad state?” he asked rhetorically.
Stem cell therapy, said Bernal, is no panacea. He said the real secret to a youthful existence is, one, “don’t smoke; aside from its proven harm, it can also cause wrinkles.” Next, he said, people should “eat well,” that is, take in a balanced diet. He himself is a “flexitarian,” who mainly eats vegetables but is not above indulging in lechon from time to time, he said.
Next is exercise, he said, though he favors dancing above all other physical activities, citing the Argentine tango as the ideal that provides not only physical exertion but also “emotional fulfillment.”
“Get rid of all negativity and anger,” he likewise advised, adding that “a good support system” is essential for maintaining good health.
So even if one can very well afford even the most expensive and exclusive stem cell treatment, a positive outlook and good basic health practices are more important, Bernal declared.
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Earlier this year, the Department of Health issued an administrative order governing the accreditation of health facilities offering stem-cell-based therapies. Among the guidelines are that stem cell therapies should be performed only in health facilities accredited by the DOH, that treatments should be subject to review, and that patients should be fully informed about the risks and benefits of the treatment.
Recently, doctors with the Philippine College of Physicians called for the suspension of licenses of “deceptive” stem cell transplant doctors, stressing the need for any drug or treatment to go through extensive review and clinical trials.
Bernal expressed agreement, adding that treatment should be done on a “case-to-case basis,” targeted at a patient’s particular needs and health status, with a “holistic” approach that includes good health maintenance and healthy habits.
And as he reminded his audience time and again, a good and positive outlook on life would not hurt, either.
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