Putting a face to medicine

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Medical reporter Dr. Max Gomez on his career of educating our city on health


  • Dr. Max Gomez. Photo: Gillian Fry

Dr. Max Gomez is used to hearing “Hey, doc,” from everyone from construction workers to police officers. As a medical reporter on CBS since 2007, and having a more than three-decade long career on-air, mostly in New York, he is not only recognized, but on occasion even asked for his medical opinion.

This is quite a change from his humble beginnings here as a “starving postdoc” at Rockefeller University, with $10,000 a year as his entire stipend. Born in Havana, Cuba, and raised in Miami, Gomez studied geophysical sciences at Princeton University, and was also a local DJ and news director at the university’s radio station, WPRB, which would ultimately set the stage for his future work.

His new book, “Cells are the New Cure,” which he co-authored with Dr. Robin Smith, sheds light on the breakthroughs in science involving the use of adult stem cells to aid in the treatment of disease. When asked about his goal for this project, he said, “The general public should be aware of it ... it’s not just future sci-fi, this is stuff that’s happening now.... It’s a really exciting time.”

You began your career on television through a suggestion from a classmate at Princeton.

I got my PhD at Wake Forest and was recruited to come up to Rockefeller University as an NIH postdoctoral fellow. I had about a year left on my grant and was running out of school to go to. I had to finally get a job and be a grown-up and wasn’t so sure I wanted to poke rats with electrodes. And at the time, I was the head of the Princeton young alumni committee in New York and we were running a short series of career counseling seminars at the Princeton Club.... That’s what got me thinking about it. And my friend Robin Krasny, who was a classmate, was the one who suggested it. She said, “You did radio in college. You like science. Why don’t you try to do science on television?”

How did you start to focus on cellular medicine?

I had done some stories over at NYU and happened to meet one of the trustees, Robin Smith, who’s my co-author on this book. At the time, she was the chairman and CEO of an adult stem banking company called NeoStem. And Robin, by the way, is your typical underachiever. She’s a Yale MD, Wharton MBA.... She said, “I have trouble getting people to understand what adult stem cells are.” Because at the time, people didn’t understand. When I went to medical school, there was really no such thing as an adult stem cell. So she asked me to make some videos for the company, explaining the difference between embryonic and adult stem cells, how you can bank your adult cells and what they might be used for. And at the time, their usefulness was somewhat theoretical, to be honest. And not all that clear what they might be used for in the future.

What’s the difference between a regular cell and a stem cell?

A regular cell is a cell that knows what it’s doing and has one job, basically. A muscle cell, liver cell, bone cell and brain cell. They have one job to do and that’s where they’re kind of stuck. Stem cells are these multi-potential cells that, in the case of an embryonic stem cell, in theory can become virtually every other cell in the body. Each of those cells can theoretically become bone, brain, muscle, skin, blood, whatever you want. It turns out we have a lot of adult stem cells left in our bodies. Stems cells are the ways as adults that we rejuvenate and regenerate our tissues. If we only had the cells we start out with, we’d wear out pretty quickly. Whereas a fully differentiated adult cell can only do what it’s supposed to do and in the end, runs out of gas and dies. And it’s confusing because people assume stem cells all mean you have to kill an embryo to do that and that’s not the case anymore. That’s why the Vatican is OK with having these stem cell conferences at the Vatican. We now have what we call transformed cells, where you can take adult cells, manipulate them genetically and turn them into embryonic-like cells.

You’re a big believer in putting a face to the science and used a lot of examples of patients in the book. Tell us one of their stories.

Emily Whitehead had basically terminal leukemia and had gone through two rounds of intense chemotherapy and came out of remission twice. Really, she was out of options. They had this therapy they were working on down at CHOP [Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia] and said we’ve never tried it on a human. They took her T cells out, reengineered them so they would recognize her leukemia, put them back in. The doctors estimated that she had several pounds of leukemia cells circulating in her body. So the T cell had a target-rich environment to kill these leukemia cells. The treatment was working too well and releasing all kinds of hormones which were now going to kill her because of the side effects. So she’s now on death’s doorstep again, to the point that her parents were told she might not make it through the weekend. They talked to a researcher who had worked on this therapy. It so happened that his daughter had juvenile rheumatoid arthritis, which puts out this same hormone that they had identified was the offender that was killing Emily. They gave her that drug and the doctors at CHOP said they had never seen anyone that sick recover that quickly. In 48 hours she went from nearly dead to sitting up in her hospital bed, eating. Emily just had her checkup a couple of months ago and is five years cancer-free.

Tell us about your role in reporting at NBC after September 11, which earned you an award of excellence from the city.

Needless to say, it was a very anxious and difficult time. I was doing mental health stories, and as my news director at the time said, my job was to talk people off the ledge. So things had sort of calmed down a little bit over the three weeks immediately following because it seemed that there were no other attacks imminent. And then we found Anthrax at NBC, in the building where I was. It had come through the seventh floor security office and then gone down to the third floor to Tom Brokaw’s office. And his secretary had gotten ... anthrax and been infected with it on her skin. That’s when all hell broke loose and people were really freaking out, including the folks in the newsroom. We had people from the CDC [Centers for Disease Control] come in to talk to us then. My job was to get people to understand what the science was and what the risks were. I had some of my most difficult and combative discussions in those times. Because we would spend the first 20 minutes of a newscast scaring the living bejesus out of people and then my job towards the end of the newscast was to calm everyone down. There was one segment where my story ran two-and-a-half minutes long and the executive producer wanted me to cut it down to 90 seconds. And I said, “No, I’m not. If we scare the crap out of people for the first third of the show, then you can damn well afford the time to have me explain.” And I was able to fortunately win those discussions. And that’s what I fought for and I guess that’s what the city Health Department recognized. In a lot of ways, that’s really one of the things I’m most proud of, because I was able to hopefully calm a lot of folks in the city down.


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