Controversial Stem Cell 'Miracle' Treatment

One woman says an overseas stem cell procedure cured her; U.S. docs are wary.

ByABC News via GMA logo
March 12, 2009, 8:33 AM

March 12, 2009 — -- Embryonic stem cell research has been grabbing headlines since President Obama decided to allow federally funded research last week.

Some doctors overseas claim they have already made amazing steps forward, but doctors in the United States warn patients to beware of possibly life-threatening side effects.

One controversial treatment does not use embryonic stem cells, but instead "adult" stem cells from umbilical cord blood or tissues that were donated after a miscarriage.

It's a treatment that is not done in the United States, but one that Jennifer Blankenship said changed her life when she had the procedure done in Costa Rica.

Blankenship has multiple sclerosis, and for the last two years she's had trouble speaking and was partially paralyzed. But she said an injection of stem cells into her spine changed everything.

"As soon as I had an injection, I was speaking normally," Blankenship said. "I started wiggling my toes, lifting my hands over my head, which I hadn't done in years."

When Terry White of Bridge Health International, a medical tourism company that helps patients find treatments abroad, explains it, it sounds simple.

"Those stem cells get around those nerves and start to rebuild the coating around those nerves," White said.

But doctors in the United States, where cord blood stem cells have only been used to treat blood-related diseases such as leukemia, are skeptical of the results.

"People have heard about stem cells. They believe they can just inject stem cells and wave them around and get miraculous cures," said Dr. Jack Kessler, a stem cell specialist at Northwestern University. "But it's going to be years before we have any kinds of cures for MS, Parkinson's or diabetes."

Last month fetal stem cell injections into the brain of an Israeli boy caused a tumor in his brain.

"Patients, please beware," Dr. John Gearhart, a stem cell scientist at the University of Pennsylvania who wasn't involved in the boy's care, told The Associated Press.

"Cells are not drugs. They can misbehave in so many different ways. It just is going to take a good deal of time" to prove how best to pursue the potential therapy, Gearhart said.