Controversial Stem Cell Treatment Attracts Thousands

Then, one day when he was online, the Flynns came across Beike's patient blogs. One story featured an Ataxia patient who had a similar labored walk, and then showed the result after stem cell injections.

Is Treatment Worth the Risk?

In August, Flynn headed off to China and expecting to pay upwards of $40,000 for treatment. His oldest son Michael accompanied and supported his dad during his first trip out of the country.

"I know it's going to work, and I keep telling Paul that," said Flynn's wife Teresa. "'See yourself walking.' He's going to come back a new man."

Flynn's visit was yet another example of what's been dubbed stem cell tourism, fueled by foreign clinics offering stem cell treatments.

It is a trend that worries Dr. George Daley, an associate professor at Harvard Medical School, and current president of the International Society for Stem Cell Research.

"There are clinics now being set up all over the world," Daley said. "There is a clinic in Bermuda, there is a clinic in Barbados, there are clinics in Eastern Europe."

According to Daley, these clinics are created in the wave of hype around the promise of stem cells.

"The fact is, that there are many desperate patients out there who don't want to wait for the slow process of medical research and medical advancement," he said.

Flynn is willing to take that risk.

"When I first got off the plane, it was like … I'd hate to say it … but it was like a Jackie Chan movie," Flynn said. "There were scooters, three-wheel scooters with stuff piled on."

There was, however, no time to reflect. Flynn's treatment began almost immediately. Beike's self-described "holistic" approach begins with physical therapy, to gauge the extent of Flynn's Ataxia, and then acupuncture to relieve and stimulate his muscles. All of this supplements his main treatment: the injection of stem cells that must be flown in fresh in a cooler from one of 10 labs Beike operates around China and quickly rushed back to the patients at the hospital.

On the day of the injection, Flynn is wheeled into the operating room, where he is under local anesthesia, and the doctor removes spinal fluid, replacing it with a cocktail of, what Beike says, contains 10 to 15 million stem cells harvested from cord blood.

Improved Balance, Strength

Paul signed up for a total of six doses of stem cells, five spinal injections and one IV.

"After they give you the stem cell treatment in the spine, it tends to set you back three days," Flynn said. "Therefore, I can feel the weakness in my body coming out. I don't know what happened, they're working or something."

Then, he began to feel better.

"By the fourth day, I start getting muscle back, strength back, and start climbing back up the ladder again," he said.

Since he started having the injections, he says his strength has increased, and so has his balance.

According to the Beike doctors, the stem cells target the areas in need. In Flynn's case, Ataxia has damaged cells in his cerebellum, the part of the brain that controls motor skills.

But critics of such procedures say they may be jumping the gun, especially in how they are using umbilical cord stem cells.

"To say that cord blood stem cells are ready for primetime, ready for interventions in neurodiseases or heart diseases, or anything outside the blood, is really the height of speculation," Daley said.

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