If the Fountain of Youth were put to auction, there is no doubt that South Florida would be the highest bidder. A city obsessed with anti-aging, Miami clamors for whatever new technologies might stay the effects of time, with little eye to cost.
It should be no surprise then that this city would host the spring conference of the American Academy of Anti-Aging Medicine (A4M) — said by attendees to be the largest, most professional conference of its kind. The conference, titled "Brain Awakening,” is being held this weekend at the Diplomat Beach Resort in Hollywood, and features continuing education classes, and chances to network.
Even for the Miamian—well versed in the methods of nipping, tucking, injecting, and relaxing one’s way to prolonged youth and beauty — the conference exhibition hall would have held a surprise or two. Mixed in with the companies peddling Botox, mysterious supplements, or the latest surgical techniques were other more bizarre takes on anti-aging: a line of armchairs that move a reclined occupant back and forth, simulating a zero-gravity experience said to reduce stress and other causes of premature aging.
The exhibition hall had all of workings of an '80s sci-fi film set. Contraptions buzzed and whirred. Lasers and flashing lights were presented as the latest diagnostic tools, fat reducers, or brain scanners. A man with features reminiscent of Barbie’s boyfriend Ken marketed a fancy white helmet to a group of eager, middle-aged men. Wear it, he told them, and it prevents hair loss, or maybe helps it grow back. Dominating the middle of the room: a huge white pod intended to mechanically hypnotize the person inside, in order to address mental health issues from PTSD to addiction.
“Some of it’s snake oil and some of it’s not,” said one exhibitor, Brian Mehling, an orthopedic surgeon from New Jersey. On the table in front of him were samples of his company’s anti-aging face creams. Their secret sauce: blood cells from a human placenta.
“I used to have a lot more wrinkles,” said Mehling, who is 52. He added almost sheepishly, “I still have wrinkles on my forehead because I don’t use Botox or anything like that.”
But the cosmetic creams are just a small part of Mehling's company, Blue Horizon International, which uses stem cells harvested from umbilical cord blood to treat everything from chronic pain to spinal cord damage. Mehling said cord blood cells are the most promising type of stem cell that can be ethically harvested without harm to child or mother, as they are extracted during a normal c-section.
Blue Horizon treatments include injecting cells into an injured area of the body, an IV infusion of the cells for anti-aging effects, or in the case of treating brain injuries, a lumbar puncture. Each treatment costs $5,000 and includes all of the cells from a single placenta.
“We don’t know how it works. But it seems to work. And it’s safe,” said Mehling, who based the assertions on his company’s own studies, and patient testimonies, including one woman who claimed to regain mobility after paralysis. Other research on the efficacy and safety is limited.
Three women were blinded in Broward after receiving fat-based stem cell injections in their eyes with hopes of curing a degenerative eye disease. But Mehling didn't seem worried about that track record. To him, not all stem cell companies are made equal.
"It's all about quality. And quality is not an accident. It's about planning," said Mehling. Nor does he worry that his claims seem too good to be true. “I’ve had more than 40 treatments with no negative side effects.”
Cord blood cell injections are not FDA approved, nor are they legal in the United States. So, Mehling flies his patients to clinics in China, Slovakia and Jamaica in order to administer the treatments. Still, he hopes to get FDA approval to run a study in the coming weeks. “They’re the referee here so you gotta play by their rules,” said Mehling, who called FDA approval the "international Gold Standard."
The field of anti-aging medicine took a public relations beating a couple of years back when Alex Rodriguez and several other major league ballplayers were linked to Biogenesis, an anti-aging clinic in South Florida that dispensed human growth hormone. The scandal engulfed the sport for a year and sent the operator of the clinic to prison. But judging from the apparent popularity of this weekend's conference, which is not open to the public, the dream of eternal youth lives on.
Speaking of athletes and anti-aging, Mehling has partnered with former Ohio State offensive lineman Kirk Barton, who had to retire before his NFL career really began due to a severe knee injury. He said he had a reduction of pain after receiving a stem cell injection and then decided to invest in the project.
The target for the first U.S. trials are former NFL players with chronic traumatic encephalopathy — a degenerative brain injury that mimics dementia, often found in people who have had multiple concussions.
“I have a lot of former teammates who only played for a few years and they are already having problems with memory,” said Barton. “If this stuff can eliminate some of that, I think it’s worth it.”