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RP hospitals now providing stem-cell treatments

by Jesse Edep ,  Business Mirror | 2009-03-08

The flattening of the world's economy has spawned a new trend in the local medical-tourism industry: Foreigners are starting to come to the Philippines because of the country's ever-growing availability of cheap but reliable regenerative or stem-cell treatments.

Dr. Samuel Bernal, consultant on regenerative medicine for the Medical City, said some hospitals in the Philippines are starting to gain vigor in stem-cell treatments. Patients treated last year reached over 100 in number.

"Ours [Philippines] is cheaper compared to other developed and developing nations,” Bernal told the BusinessMirror in a phone interview on Monday after a briefing with the media on “Bioregenerative Medicine for Health and Wellness."

In the US, for instance, stem-cell medicine costs $120,000 and above. In the Philippines, it is 40 percent lower than that of the US.

But all stem-cell medicine that local hospitals have, according to Bernal, have similar approaches with other countries.

He said the Philippines, which is home to the best medical professionals around the globe, can develop its own regenerative-medicine methodology.

"We have to expand our own approaches with regard to stem-cell medicine. Our hospitals should go beyond the standards of the US. Let's not be imitators," pointed out Bernal, who has been traveling to Russia, Europe and Australia to get ideas which approaches are best for the Philippines.

"We have to maximize our talents and skills in this labor-intensive field on how to process cells in more customized ways," added Bernal.

Bernal said the Philippines has to focus on anticancer stem-cell treatments, myocardial regeneration, bone and cartilage regeneration, skin repair, eye stem cells, nerve and brain regeneration, kidney and bladder regeneration, liver regeneration, lung regeneration and endocrine-tissue repair.

Regenerative medicine is an innovative program that involves the engineering of living cells, tissues and organs to preserve and enhance organ function and improve the quality of life. 

There are a number of stem-cell therapies already in common use today, such as bone-marrow transplant that is used to treat leukemia.

Researchers also hold great hope that these new technologies will be able to treat a wide variety of debilitating conditions, such as spinal-cord injuries, cerebral palsy, multiple sclerosis, rheumatoid arthritis, diabetes, Parkinson’s disease, Alzheimer’s disease and muscle damage.

However, there still exists a great deal of resistance on some stem-cell developments. Bernal, for one, is opposed to the use of embryonic stem cells or cells that are taken from early- stage embryos.

"Embryonic stem cells are not safe for use because they cause cancer and liver diseases." said Bernal, who obtained a medical-doctor degree at the University of Chicago. "The safest and effective way is through bioregenerative medicine [BRM]."

At the same time, the use of embryonic stem cells is very controversial because many quarters, especially the Church, are against its use owing to ethical concerns, because it involves the destruction of embryos, which, many believe, is the start of human life.

Besides bone marrow, sources of stem cells—commonly called adult stem cells—that are currently being used are those from the umbilical cord, blood vessels, brain tissues, adipose tissue, skeletal muscle, skin and liver.

BRM goes beyond stem cells and involves a very high level of sciences—molecular biology, biochemistry, biophysics, biomathematics and biomedical engineering, said Bernal.

The purpose of regenerative medicine is not only to treat patients who are already ill but also prevent disease, said Bernal.

He said wellness and aesthetic applications of regenerative medicine are also available. "This is not an academic exercise. This is about making patients’ lives better," he said.

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