Shark Embryo
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Shark Embryo Cell Transplantation for Spinal Cord Injury

Laurance Johnston, Ph.D.

The therapies previously discussed in this series on alternative medicine for spinal cord injury (SCI) generally have few side effects, are minimally invasive, and are relatively inexpensive. Hence, there is little to lose and potentially much to gain.

However, this is not the case with the International Spinal Cord Regeneration Center (ISCRC), located in Tijuana, Mexico. The Center represents an intensive, costly program, involving inherently risky spinal surgery and a controversial, shark embryo cell transplantation procedure. Patient with SCI holding shark embryo Nevertheless, in spite of being ignored by the established SCI health-care and research community, treated individuals believe that they have benefited considerably.

Program Description:


Regardless of the Center’s “alternative” status, ISCRC staff consists of conventionally trained health professionals. For example, founder and director, Dr Fernando Ramirez, received training at leading medical schools in the U.S. and England. He demonstrates considerable knowledge of not only state-of-the-art, mainstream science but also of alternative approaches not well appreciated in the U.S.  Dr. Fernando Ramirez. director of the shark embryo cell transplantaion procedure for spinal cord injury (SCI)By working in Mexico, a country with a more relaxed health-care philosophy, he feels that he has much more latitude in attempting to integrate innovative and established treatments that can help people with spinal cord injury.


The program generally targets individuals who have sustained a compression injury in which their cords have been crushed but not completely severed. Although such injuries are often diagnosed as clinically complete (i.e., no sensation or movement below the injury site), frequently some neurons remain structurally intact across the injury site.

Initially, the spinal cord is repaired during a lengthy decompression and reconstructive surgical procedure. Doctors remove bone fragments and scarring tissue from the injury site.  In addition, any cysts that may have developed following injury are drained, and a shunt is inserted to keep fluid from accumulating.  The spinal column is then reconstructed and strengthened. In the next step, embryonic neuronal cells obtained from the blue shark are inserted into the spinal cord at the injury site.  Center staff claim that these cells will eventually form an infrastructure matrix that will facilitate neural transmissions, and, in turn, restore some function.

Follow-up Treatment

Although some recovery is anticipated soon after surgery, significant improvement requires embryonic shark-cell injections every two weeks for several years. In these follow-up treatments, the cells are injected into muscle groups along the midline on both sides of the spine at levels corresponding with demonstrated sensation.

Although mainstream scientists are skeptical, these site-specific embryonic neuronal cells will reportedly migrate to the patient’s spinal cord even if they are injected into the muscle. Over time, as sensory awareness improves, doctors give these injections at increasingly lower dermatome levels (areas on the body that matches a specific spinal cord level).  In addition to the embryonic cells, nerve growth factors and scarring inhibitors are also injected to facilitate regeneration. Patients initiate rigorous physical rehabilitation programs to strengthen supporting muscles and to retrain neural pathways.

Patient Outcomes

Since the program started in the early 1990’s, the Center has treated over 30 people with spinal cord injury. Most patients who have persisted with the program reportedly have had some functional improvement. The most dramatic has been the earlier treated individuals who have had the most follow-up treatments. For example, the center’s first patient Israel underwent surgery in 1990 two years after an injury due to a diving accident. After years of follow-up therapy, he is now walking with the occasional use of leg braces, and he continues to improve. In addition to overall increased sensory and motor function, a number of the early treated patients report regained bowel and bladder control.

In response to criticism that it over relied on the subjective impressions of doctors and patients to measure improvement, the program is now using a procedure called dermatomal somatosensory evoked  potential. With this procedure, a low-voltage potential is passed between scalp electrodes and electrodes placed on the skin at locations on the body representing functional levels. Because the electrical signal is transmitted through the spinal cord, signal transmission is interrupted if sufficient, functional neurons do not exist.

Hence, by evaluating this signal before and periodically after treatment, doctors can measure improvement independent of subjective bias. An independent neurologist board certified and licensed by the State of California carries out this assessment. Although the procedure addresses a major criticism, it is expensive, emphasizing the tradeoff that often exists between the need for scientific rigor and cost containment.

Cost: As expected from the program’s intensity, the cost is substantial. Depending on patient’s unique needs, the initial procedure itself ranges from $30,000 - $45,000, and follow-up treatments are estimated at over $20,000 per year. As an experimental therapy, insurance coverage is questionable.

Embryonic Cell Transplantation - The Controversy:


The most controversial aspect of the program is its embryo cell transfer procedure. Live cell therapy, involving the transfer of embryonic cells from other species into humans, has an intriguing history. Based on procedures developed by Swiss physician Dr. Paul Niehans in the 1930’s, it has been used to treat a wide range of disorders. Although live cell therapy has considerable acceptance in Europe (as well as some controversy), it has not been allowed in the U.S.  Over the years, the therapy acquired a reputation and was used by many famous individuals, including Pope Pious XII, Charlie Chaplan, Dwight Eisenhower, and Winston Churchill. Today, the procedure is carried out in exclusive Swiss clinics that cater to the rich.

Dr. Wolfram Kuhnau, a protégé of Dr. Niehans, developed the use of blue shark embryo cells and now provides them to the Center. A 90-year old German physician who currently lives in Mexico, Dr. Kuhnau has a long history of scientific achievements dating back to the 1930’s, including collaborations with a Nobel laureate. His rationale for using blue shark embryo cells was based on the shark’s uniquely strong immune system, which, it is claimed, enhances transplantation efficacy.  Interestingly, the actual procedure to treat spinal cord injury was initiated by the first patient Israel, mentioned above. Specifically, after hearing about Dr. Kuhnau’s work in treating other neurological disorders, Israel convinced Dr. Kuhnau to treat him and then facilitated the collaboration with Dr. Ramirez to obtain the surgical expertise.

Embryonic Cell Transplantation

Embryonic cells clearly are unique. Due to their early developmental stage, they are extremely adaptable and, as a result, less likely to be rejected by the host. Although remaining controversial, Dr. Ramirez feels that their program has been increasingly vindicated conceptually by evolving mainstream science. Although they would refuse to acknowledge it, he believes that the scientific community in many respects is catching up to what their clinic has already done. Until recently, the prevailing dogma was that cellular implantation into injured spinal cord would not work. Now, however, scientists believe it is a promising research area with great potential for restoring function. 

For example, mainstream neuroscientists have recently started transplanting human embryo cells into the expanding syringomyelia cysts of individuals with spinal cord injury. The transplanted cells grow and obliterate the cyst, restoring function lost due to cyst expansion.  Many scientists believe the same approach will eventually be used to restore function lost to SCI, which, Dr. Ramirez notes is essentially the clinic’s emphasis. In another example, Dr. Ramirez feels that recent state-of-the-art research involving neuronal stem cells supports the clinic’s approach. Basically, these stem cells represent omni-potential master cells that have the ability to differentiate into a variety of specific cell types, including function-restoring neurons. Blue shark embryonic cells should be a rich source of such stem cells.

Although the transplantation of embryonic cells is gaining increased acceptance, critics remain concerned about transferring cells representing a vastly divergent species into the human spinal cord. Given potential (albeit to date unrealized) long-term risks associated with such cross-species transplantation, critics believe that the Center has not provided a compelling rationale to justify the use of blue shark embryo cells. Dr. Ramirez responds that embryonic cross-species transplantation has had a history of successful, safe use in Europe that is not well appreciated by U.S. practitioners.

Although procedures sound theoretically plausible, critics feel it is difficult to evaluate the program because specifics and details are lacking. Furthermore, scientists are uncomfortable with multi-faceted treatment programs such as this one because it is difficult to identify specific cause and effect. Improvement could be due to any one or combination of factors.  In addition, as is often the situation with many alternative programs that operate outside the scientific, academic community, the Center has not shared its results in professional journals where they can be scrutinized. Such a process would facilitate mainstream acceptance. Although acknowledging this deficiency, Dr. Ramirez feels his focus on patients instead of science is not inappropriate. He further notes that few scientists have accepted his ongoing invitation to visit the clinic and become more familiar with its procedures.


In summary, this clinic represents an intriguing alternative therapy for individuals with SCI. Although the “experts” tend to dismiss the program, individuals who have persevered believe in its benefits. By ignoring the conventional wisdom of science and its widely perceived glacial pace for creating real-world solutions for spinal cord injury, did Dr. Ramirez and his colleagues decide to, like in the well-known Nike commercial,  “just do it”? Or have they taken advantage of a vulnerable population based on pseudoscientific claims and theories. Clearly, given the nature of the intervention and its cost, readers should be cautious if considering the program and carefully weigh pros and cons.

For further information on the International Spinal Cord Regeneration Center, call 619/463-5350 or see the web site  The Center has made available a list of treated patients that can be contacted.

Adapted from an article appearing in the September & October 1999 issues of Paraplegia News (For subscriptions, contact

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