Medical Tourism's Most Distant Outposts

by Gaia Pianigiani ,  Forbes | 2009-05-21

Desperate patients are traveling far and wide for access to stem-cell cures unavailable in the States.

In December 2008, Carlene Gregg Victor left Houston's George Bush International airport with a wheelchair and a flicker of hope. After a 10-hour plane ride and a five-hour snowy drive from Amsterdam to Cologne, Germany, she and her husband arrived at a hotel near the Xcell-Center for Regenerative Medicine, where they would mount a desperate offensive in their battle with her Parkinson's disease.

By that time, Gregg Victor, 65, had suffered from Parkinson's for seven years. Her right hand trembled so much that she couldn't write anymore; feeling in the toes of her right foot would fade in and out; and she couldn't twist that ankle. When she walked, her right leg moved more slowly than her left.

Frustrated by the lack of treatment options in the U.S., she was willing to gamble on a $10,000 procedure involving the injection of 3 million of her own stem cells, extracted from bone marrow in her hip, into the fluid surrounding her spinal cord.

Unlike other cells, stem cells have the power to replicate, making them potentially powerful weapons against all manner of pathologies, from Alzheimer's to diabetes. The cells can be harvested from numerous sources--often from a patient's own bone marrow or from umbilical cord blood of healthy newborns. Once multiplied and conditioned, the cells can be injected intravenously into the blood stream or directly into injured sections of the body, depending on the ailment.

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