Brimhall Wellness Stem Cell Course: A Review
I often write about what I experience day to day. This week a local chiropractor sent me an email from Brimhall Wellness about a stem cell course. As I dug deeper and deeper, I found things that were deeply disturbing. In fact, I haven’t seen anything this scary in three decades of medical practice. So strap in and let’s dive in.
Before I get into the really scary stuff, this all begins with yet another typical chiro stem cell scam. Yet another chiropractic guru offering courses to teach clinics how to offer fake stem cell treatments. The email I got forwarded was about a Brimhall Wellness “stem cell” course and read as follows:
“Subject: Marc Harris Stem Cell Seminar….”Two words…incredible and phenomenal! If you are doing stem cells, you need to get to it ASAP! Even if you don’t do stem cells, you need to go to this seminar to see for yourself the true healing potential of not just stem cells but all of the other protocols!”
Once I dug deeper into the material, I saw a familiar product name. The company was hawking “StemVive” which is an umbilical cord product. This is what they wrote:
“StemVive® is a minimally manipulated allograft…Through our groundbreaking proprietary processing system we are able to protect and preserve high levels of donor stem cells and viability per unit even after cryopreservation.“
The first problem? Our lab and that at the CSU Translational Medicine Institute haven’t been able to verify that StemVive has any living mesenchymal stem cells. However, as you’ll see below, a stem cell scam was only the tip of this iceberg.
Does StemVive have any stem cells? This is the test that was done at our lab here at Regenexx and at CSU:
This is a standard CFU-f test (Colony Forming Unit-fibroblast assay), which looks for adherent stem cells. On the bottom, you see what the test is supposed to show. The purple dots are stem cell colonies in the bone marrow of elderly patients. The fact that every product on the top row that was derived from umbilical cord products shows no purple dots (all white) means that none of those products, including StemVive had any viable and functional mesenchymal stem cells (MSCs). Hence, the claim by Brimhall Wellness that StemVive is a product containing MSCs, based on this data from two labs, is false.
The Guy with Three PhDs
Where this classic chiro stem cell scam had the wheels come off was when I began to dig deeper into the course. I reached out to Dr. Brimhall via phone to get more information. I promptly asked him about research that shows that StemVive has no stem cells. His response was interesting in that he said when referring to StemVive, “It’s ALL stem cells”. That told me everything I needed to know because even if this were a live umbilical cord stem cell product, it would never be “all” stem cells, but only a fraction of the cells would be MSCs. Hence, I knew immediately that I was talking to a salesman who didn’t know what he didn’t know about this topic. However, what he said next launched a new rabbit hole to explore that exposed not only simple misrepresentation fraud but some really dangerous stuff.
On my phone call, Dr. Brimhall claimed that the physician who was teaching his “stem cell courses” had three Ph.D.s. Because I publish several research papers a year in regenerative orthopedics, I know a slew of Ph.Ds. I’ve never met anyone with three, so I decided to dig deeper here. In fact, when I looked it up, Marc Harris is listed on the Brimhall website as Marc Harris, MD, ND, PhD, PhD, PhD. Now that’s really not the way that someone with several Ph.D.’s lists themselves, but again, IMHO, from talking with him, Dr. Brimhall is a salesman. On another note. that’s’ not even the correct abbreviation for a Ph.D.
I first Googled Dr. Harris and this is what I found that was left of a now-deleted Cloud Flare domain:
Huh? He graduated from high school at age 7, got a Ph.D. in biology at age 9, and then earned an M.D./Ph.D. and an N.D. degree by age 12? Those achievements at those ages would be Guinness World record stuff, but a search of the Google newspaper archives yielded no results.
I contacted the Brimhall organization to get a CV for Dr. Harris. I got a skeletal one and a quarter page document. The first HUGE red flag was that this CV didn’t look like any CV I had seen for an M.D. or a Ph.D. For example, Christie Anseth, Ph.D. is a very accomplished Ph.D. research scientist at the University of Colorado in a similar age range as Dr. Harris and has one Ph.D. She has a 76 page CV that lists 341 publications and dozens of awards. Dr. Harris? His one page CV makes the statement that he has “1400 articles: peer reviewed literature”. That would be one publication a week for 23 years! To put that in context, it often takes months to a year to peer review one single published journal article.
I then tried to find research papers published by Dr. Harris in one of his main areas of stated interest, which appears to be methylation. I searched the first three pages of the US Library of Medicine and couldn’t find a single paper authored on that topic by a “Marc Harris”. I then just searched that spelling in the national library of medicine and again found nothing. So is it possible to have 1,400 publications and be difficult to find on a PubMed search? IMHO that’s unlikely.
Dr. Harris states that he has both M.D. and N.D. degrees and his office is in Montana. I could find no active medical nor naturopathic license listed under that name at the Montana Department of Labor and Industry website. The provider web services like WebMD have him listed as a naturopath, but not as a physician. I then tried a medical license lookup in the state of Washington where he claimed to earn an M.D./Ph.D. I again found nothing. He also claimed to get an ND degree from a Washington naturopathic school and again I found no evidence of an active or old naturopathic license.
Fraud is a strong term, but as a spinal interventionalist with decades of experience and tens of thousands of image-guided spine injections under my belt, I can clearly tell if an injection on a video is likely to be real or faked. What I first found with Dr. Harris was both very disconcerting and very concerning. What I found later really frightened me. Let me explain.
In performing more research on Dr. Harris, I came across a video series on Vimeo, where he purports to show providers how to perform various spinal injections. Given that his advanced course syllabus on the Brimhall website had procedures like a vagus nerve injection, which would be dangerous to perform for even the most experienced image-guided and fellowship-trained interventionists, it was curious what I would find. What I witnessed explained everything else. Why? What this guy claims he’s injecting is not what he’s injecting.
The Fake Facet Injection
A real facet joint injection involves x-ray or ultrasound guidance and if the patient has any weight on them, usually a 3.5-inch spinal needle to reach your target (sometimes longer). Fluoroscopy is usually used to guide the needle several inches into the body to hit a target (the opening of the joint) no bigger than a couple of playing cards thick. In patients with more advanced arthritis, even experienced interventionalists like myself can struggle to find the right opening. Below is an x-ray image of a properly performed facet injection using fluoroscopy guidance:
Hence, the first image below from the Dr. Harris video (uploaded by John Brimhall) lets an experienced spinal interventionist know that Dr. Harris has no idea what he’s doing in trying to inject a facet joint:
Why? First, this is a heavy patient. Hence, the 1.5-2 inch needle he’s using (usually used to inject a knee) won’t reach the facet in a guy of this mass. Second, he’s placed the needle in the midline (dashed line) when the facets are off to the side (3 inches below the yellow dots). Third, an actual facet injection should use imaging guidance, which is not being done here. Meaning, you can’t inject a facet joint “blind”. So what is being injected? Likely the back muscle.
The Fake Intrathecal Injection
If the above fake injection is just a fraudulent misrepresentation, Dr. Harris’s focus on intrathecal injections is downright dangerous. First, these are very uncommon injections to perform, but Dr. Harris mentions this injection route several times during the two videos I watched. Why? The goal appears to be to inject the fake stem cell products discussed above into the spinal neuraxis to treat serious neurologic diseases.
“Intrathecal” means that the doctor injects inside the covering of the spinal cord and nerve roots. Said another way, this is an injection inside the spinal canal that’s deeper than epidural. This injection is again usually performed using imaging guidance, but if performed blind, requires a long (3.5 inch) specially tipped spinal needle called a “Touhy”. This is a careful “two-needle” approach where the introducer is placed and then the Touhy needle is inserted into the introducer and slowly moved forward millimeter by millimeter until the doctor gets back spinal fluid (CSF). Why is an introducer needle used? Because this one needs to be done in a very sterile manner as introducing bacteria into the intrathecal space could be deadly. Why is it done slowly? Because if you go too far you can permanently paralyze the patient. This is what a proper intrathecal injection looks like:
Note the two needles used and the plastic sterile field and sterile gloves.
Once the needle is confirmed as intrathecal by CSF flowing out back towards the doctor, only a tiny amount of anesthetic can be injected as it will spread a huge distance. For example, there was a local physician who blindly injected just 10 ccs of an anesthetic into the low back of a patient and the patient died. What happened? The anesthetic went intrathecal and spread to her high upper spinal cord where it knocked out the ability to breathe. The patient died because the doctor didn’t know how to resuscitate the patient.
This is what an intrathecal injection procedure looks like on x-fluoroscopy:
In the Dr. Harris fake version of this injection, this is what it looks like:
Where’s the carefully prepared sterile field with plastic shielding? There is none. Where is the dual needle set with the specially designed Touhy needle? Not here. Sterile gloves? Nope.
The needle used here is still that same 1.5-inch needle that’s the wrong type and nowhere near long enough to reach this guy’s intrathecal space. It’s off of mid-line and directed back toward the midline, which could be the right spot if it had any ability to reach the right spot (which would be at least 3 inches deep in this guy). Then Dr. Harris didn’t check to get CSF back to make sure he was actually “intrathecal”, which is an absolute requirement of the procedure. Instead, he just injected at this depth and declared it “intrathecal”. Where is this needle likely to be? In the low back fat, muscles, or possibly in the interspinous ligament. See below for a diagram:
If you want to learn more about these Dr. Harris fake intrathecal injections from a different part of this same video series, see my video below:
I also reviewed what was billed as a cervical “intrathecal” injection performed with a 1 1/4 inch needle. This was inserted quickly and forcefully. How do I know it wasn’t intrathecal, besides the fact that Dr. Harris never got any CSF back? Take a look at this shot from the video:
If the “stem cells” and ozone that were injected actually went intrathecal (around the spinal cord and nerve roots), then there would be no skin bump. However, because Dr. Harris actually injected more than 10 cc’s of this stuff into this patient’s superficial tissues instead of around the spinal cord, we see a huge skin bump after the injection.
However, the most frightening thing is that Dr. Harris stated that he does these injections with procaine. What’s that? An anesthetic. He also was seen injecting massive amounts of fluid for a cervical intrathecal injection. If he happened to get that anesthetic intrathecal, that would easily render the patient unconscious and unable to breathe.
From watching these videos and showing them to several properly trained colleagues today, not only is Dr., Harris not performing the injections he claims, but in my opinion, he’s also dangerous. It gives me NO pleasure in saying this and in thousands of blogs, I’m not sure I have ever stated that a provider is outright dangerous, but here it needs to be said to protect patients.
Putting It All Together
So we have a chiropractor (Dr. Brimhall) selling lectures and education to other chiropractors about stem cells. I am used to seeing chiros commit fraud by claiming that they are selling or injecting umbilical cord “stem cell” products that actually have no living stem cells. In fact, that bait and switch consumer fraud is regrettably all too common. However, what’s not so common is this next part.
We have someone claiming to have an M.D. as well as a naturopathic degree (N.D.) and also claiming to have earned three Ph.D.s who is teaching these “stem cell” injection courses. Remarkably, he received all of these degrees by age 12. I can’t confirm via Montana license look-ups that this provider (Dr. Harris) has an active medical or naturopathic license. I can say that his CV, IMHO, is not consistent with renowned Ph.D.s that I know that have a fraction of the 1,400 publications that he claims. More critically and frankly more concerning, is that Dr. Harris is teaching a course on how to perform various spinal injections, but the video evidence doesn’t show even a basic understanding of how to perform the injections he claims to be teaching. Even more concerning is that Dr. Harris also claims to be injecting via very high-risk routes like intrathecal but is nowhere near that space in the low back. In the neck, if he was actually intrathecal in a thin patient and injected an anesthetic (which he references several times), he would be seriously risking that patient’s life. Even without anesthetic, he’s injecting massive amounts of ozone gas and then what appears to be a Wharton’s Jelly product. We have almost zero data that either one of these products is safe for intrathecal use.
A Comment on Alternative Health Practitioners and Interventional Spine
What’s really concerning is that Dr. Brimhall obviously has no idea how to quality control spinal injections. That makes sense because he has no training there, so Dr. Harris could be injecting A and pass it off as injecting B all day long. Hence, it’s very concerning that Dr. Brimhall’s courses through Dr. Harris may educate countless chiropractors, nurse practitioners, and physician assistants in these really bad and dangerous techniques.
The upshot? IMHO, this is one of the more screwed up scams that I have seen. Not only is there the typical fake stem cell bait and switch, but we also have another layer, fake spinal injections. Even more concerning is that the techniques I saw being performed on live human patients are VERY dangerous.