In Cord Blood

Page 6 of 6

The doctor's name? Mitchell J. Ghen.

When I told Gerald Maass about my family's bad experience with Ghen, he didn't seem to know the name.

"You hear about people doing it in Tijuana and other places," he said. "That appears to be what attracts desperate people. 'Buyer Beware' applies to a lot of things."

Science and law have conspired in recent years to make it more difficult for operators like the Biomark duo or Mitchell Ghen to fleece the desperate. The FDA is keeping a closer watch on disreputable operators, for example. And scientists are learning that the uses of umbilical cord blood are more limited than previously believed.

Cryo-Cell, meanwhile, isn't waiting for that information to reach the masses. The company, with the help of Zafran, is now moving away from cord blood entirely. The webcast of Emily Simmons' birth in June, in fact, was the world debut of a new medical hope that Cryo-Cell expects will be even bigger than cord blood ever was: placental stem cells.

In 2005, scientists at the University of Pittsburgh discovered that some cells from the human placenta, another byproduct of birth, seem to act like embryonic stem cells. Since then, a number of companies have been racing to patent placental cell technology and corner the newest development in the stem cell market. One, a North Carolina company called Plureon, has patented something it calls "Plureon Placental stem cells" and has signed a contract giving Cryo-Cell exclusive access to collect them. Plureon scientists (the company has not made their names known) claim that they have cured diabetic mice using the cells, but the study, which will be peer-reviewed by Dr. Zafran, has yet to be published. Still, Plureon, Cryo-Cell, and Zafran planned the June webcast as the launch of an advertising campaign aimed at convincing parents to store their placentas with Cryo-Cell.

Standing near Rosa Simmons' sliced-open abdomen, Zafran narrates as several pairs of hands deliver a large red organ — Rosa's placenta.

"Dr. Plunket and Kathy are going to put things back together," Zafran says to Rosa as he holds the placenta in a plastic bowl, "and I'm going to demonstrate the collection of the Plureon Placental stem cells, if I might."

With a camera following him, Zafran carries a plastic bowl to a corner of the operating room. As Emily squalls in the background, he addresses the camera.

"The placenta is a magical creation of nature," he says. "It is this area... from which we will obtain the Plureon Placental stem cells. This life-giving property, and life-preserving property, will be obtained and sent to the laboratory, and we will demonstrate that method."

The camera rolls as Zafran poises his scalpel and slices the red mass, making brownish/black blood ooze forth. As if slicing fat from a chicken breast, he carves a rough square from the mottled, veiny organ, which he places into a small circular container and covers with clear liquid.

"That really is all there is to it," Zafran says.

KEEP NEW TIMES BROWARD-PALM BEACH FREE... Since we started New Times Broward-Palm Beach, it has been defined as the free, independent voice of South Florida, and we'd like to keep it that way. With local media under siege, it's more important than ever for us to rally support behind funding our local journalism. You can help by participating in our "I Support" program, allowing us to keep offering readers access to our incisive coverage of local news, food and culture with no paywalls.
Julia Reischel