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Crossing the Border: The Search for a Cure

Reported January 31, 2008

SAN DIEGO, Calif. (Ivanhoe Newswire) -- What if you were told you were going to die and there was nothing doctors could do? What if your child had a disease with no cure? How far would you go? One hundred fifty thousand Americans head overseas each year for experimental therapy -- therapy not offered in the United States.

"I had taken that triple jump probably 25 to 30 times before," Greg Minow recalls. "That morning, I had decided to go around the track at full speed. When I was up in the air, I knew I was too far gone to actually save it. I remember seeing the ground come up and then my head hit the ground. I realized, at that moment, I couldn't feel anything."

At that moment, Minow was paralyzed. Doctors in the United States told Minow he'd never walk again -- but giving up was not in this army lieutenant's blood.

"I had to find something to fight for. I had to find something to live for," Minow says.

He survived Iraq -- and would not accept defeat at home.

"From then on, I decided I was going to try and walk again, and so I can devote my life to walking again," Minow says.

Searching the web, Minow found the International Spinal Cord Regeneration Center in Tijuana, Mexico. He raised $65,000 and literally rolled himself across the border for stem cell therapy -- therapy not offered in the United States.

"It actually blew all the hospitals in America away with how nice and clean it was," Minow says.

Minow underwent spinal cord decompression surgery and was injected with three vials of umbilical cord stem cells. The results -- Minow has gained two inches of touch sensation in his abdomen and has deep pressure sensation in his hips and the top of his legs.


"Some doctors even believe that the umbilical cord stem cells cannot become the type of cells that the body needs to repair the spinal cord, but I'm living proof of that they do," Minow says.

But one of the leading stem cell researchers in the United States is skeptical.

"That kind of stem cell is not useful for spinal cord injuries," says Evan Snyder, M.D., Ph.D., Director of the Stem Cell Program at the Burnham Institute in San Diego, Calif.

Dr. Snyder believes stem cells will be able to help someday, but it's still too early to determine now if and how they will be able to repair the body.

"So while I understand the desperation, patients would be well advised to wait until they can really have brand A and not just settle for brand X," Dr. Snyder says.

But for little Lexi Smith -- brand X is her only option. This nine-year-old is full of energy. She loves to dance, play with her little sister and just have fun. But what you may not see is -- Lexi is blind. Her optic nerves aren't fully developed.

"I want to see my mommy," Lexi says.

And Lexi's mom hopes an experimental stem cell transplant in China will give her that opportunity.

"I'd love her to see her baby pictures. I'd want her to see what she looked like growing up and that her baby pictures look just like my baby pictures," Lexi's mom, Heather, says.

Although umbilical stem cells are used in this country to treat more than 50 diseases, they're not used to treat Lexi's condition. Some American doctors have doubts about the therapy planned for this little girl in China.

"I think whoever you talk to in this country about the blindness treatments in China, they would give it the thumbs down," says Albert Donnenberg, Ph.D., a professor of medicine at University of Pittsburgh Medical Center's cellular therapy department.

Some doctors believe there are major obstacles for this therapy. The stem cells are delivered through IV and must get to the right place in the body, turn into the right type of cells and not be rejected by the immune system.

"All of these things are possible but some of them are particularly unlikely," Dr. Donnenberg says.

Lexi's therapy is set for June. It will cost $50,000 to get her there and get the procedure -- an illegal treatment in the United States that her American doctors don't think is worth the risk.

"If somebody is asking you to write a check, your own money, it's snake oil. Don't do it. Because if it's bona fide, you wouldn't need to pay out of your own pocket," Dr. Snyder says.

But for Lexi's mom, it's a risk worth taking.

"Hope is a major thing. When you haven't had hope for almost nine years and you finally get it you really go with it," Heather says.

Lexi's stem cell therapy is at least 10 years away from approval in the United States -- too late for Lexi. The earlier she gets the treatment, the better the chance that it will work. It has been tried on four children so far at least three have seen improvement. An eight-year-old from Romania was completely blind. Now, the clinic says she can see the clock on the wall eight feet away.