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Costa Rica No Longer A Stem Cell Tourism Destination

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By Alex Leff

SAN JOSE, Costa Rica -- Doctors and patients claim it's a miracle cure, and one not yet available in the United States. They say it can be used to treat multiple sclerosis, strokes and diabetes.

Hundreds of international medical tourists have come to this Central American nation seeking adult stem cell treatment.

But now the government is calling the treatment "experimental" and "unproven." Last month the San Jose-based Stem Cell Institute announced it must shutter its doors because of a "lack of clarity regarding adult stem cell treatment regulation in Costa Rica," according to a statement from the institute.

The institute "was using therapies that are completely illegal in this country," Costa Rican Health Minister Dr. Maria Luisa Avila said before Supreme Court magistrates last week during a hearing about whether to allow stem cell treatment in Costa Rica. If the court rules in favor of the government, medical tourists and Costa Ricans will have to look elsewhere for their so-called "miracle cure."

Stem cell expert Dr. Fabio Solano says the treatment has a good enough track record to be used to fight the effects of multiple sclerosis (MS), strokes, diabetes and a number of other conditions. Patients, including one with heart problems and another who survived a plane accident, claim it's their constitutional right to have the treatment.

Since opening in mid-2005, the institute treated as many as 700 people, many of them from the U.S., where such treatment is mostly unavailable, Solano said. Patients and media have stirred a buzz with videos, blogs and articles, detailing the stem cell experience in often glowing words.

In a YouTube video interview, Police Sgt. Preston Walker from Fort Worth, Texas, says the stem cell treatment he received in Costa Rica was "absolutely the best experience I've had, ever."

While foreign patients paid up to $5,000 for a week's treatment, Costa Ricans were receiving stem cell therapy free of charge, a gift from the Stem Cell Institute.

The treatment is conducted using cells extracted from the patient's own fatty tissue or from umbilical cords, both rich with adult stem cells that can give rise to almost any kind of the human body's more than 200 cell types. Doctors at the institute say when the cells are injected into patients' bodies, they work to regenerate tissue. Through the alternative medicine, they claim, patients have walked again when traditional doctors said they never would.

In an emailed statement, Health Minister Avila said "the results are merely anecdotal and there is no scientific evidence yet." She added that such therapies are not approved by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration.

The health authorities said the Stem Cell Institute was licensed only to work as a "stem cell bank" for storage and research, but never gained authorization to administer treatment on patients. Costa Rica prohibits all work on human embryos.

Leading stem cell researchers in the United States say the treatment's success is wildly overstated.

Dr. Jack Kessler, an expert in stem cell research at Northwestern University's Feinberg School of Medicine in Chicago, told GlobalPost last year the practice has a long way to go to treat disorders like spinal cord injuries, strokes, Parkinson's disease or MS. He warned that medical tourists are being fed false hope [2], and even the placebo effect, rather than a proven cure.

While Costa Rica's government wants to see results from clinical trials, Solano insists use of the treatment should go forward right now. "Progress in medicine does not only come from clinical tests," he said, pointing out that pioneers in organ transplants such as Dr. Christiaan Barnard [3] did not perform such tests.

"In this practice, we surgeons especially have to innovate all the time," Solano said.

Costa Rica's best-known anecdote of stem cell success is 30-year-old pilot Juan Carlos Murillo, who survived a plane crash landing May 13, 2008, with three cracked vertebrae. Doctors said he might never leave his wheelchair. At San Jose's Supreme Court, Murillo held just one crutch when he walked into the courtroom, saying it was thanks to his free treatment at the Stem Cell Institute.

Murillo was expecting a new injection the week of the court hearing. When he heard about the institute's closure and the government's stance, he said, he went into shock. He said, "They're taking away the last thing we've got."

The shuttered institute, owned by Arizona entrepreneur Neil Riordan, announced it is concentrating its operations in Costa Rica's neighbor to the south, Panama, claiming that the Panamanian government "has clearly defined laws that regulate adult stem cell therapies."

Riordan could be in for another rude awakening.

The Panamanian Health Ministry denies permitting stem cell treatment and said no hospital or clinic in the country practices it. Dr. Eduardo Lucas Mora, the ministry's general director, said any treatment conducted in Panama "must, among other things, demonstrate its effectiveness. You cannot come and experiment on a person and use medicine that is not yet proven."

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