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US stem cell treatment limited, patients go elsewhere

world Updated: Jun 06, 2010 23:30 IST

Disillusioned by US doctors who could not help their daughter with cerebral palsy, Kara Anderson’s parents did something they could not have imagined a few years ago: They took her to China.

Specialists in the Chicago area, where the family lives, said that Kara’s brain injury was permanent and that the 9-year-old would probably end up in a wheelchair because of severe twisting in her leg muscles. But then her parents heard stories about children who had improved after receiving injections of stem cells.

The treatment was not available in the US. It was only commercially available abroad.

That’s how the Andersons joined the desperate people who are taking leaps of faith in seeking stem cell treatments in places as far as China, India, Russia and Brazil. Western scientists worry that patients are being taken in by slick marketing campaigns, wasting time, money and hope on unproven therapies, and perhaps even putting themselves in danger.

“Unregulated therapy in the absence of any evidence that these cells are going to help patients is reckless. The potential to do harm is enormous,” said Arnold Kreigstein, a neurologist who is director of stem cell research at the University of California at San Francisco.

Scientists hope various kinds of stem cells can be used to treat devastating and common ailments: Heart attack, stroke, Parkinson’s disease, diabetes, liver failure, even blindness. For now, there is scant evidence for the benefits of treatments such as the ones the Andersons sought.

Stem cell research is an area in which the US faces new rivals — and ones willing to move quickly from experimental research to treatment. A January report by the National Science Board warned the US position as the world’s innovation leader is declining and China’s influence is increasing.

The report said that is the result of a surge in government investment in science and technology education, infrastructure and research.

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