To Russia, with hope of a miracle cure
The Tribune's Alex Rodriguez explores unfettered stem cell treatments offered in Moscow that are attracting a growing number of Western patients
By Alex Rodriguez | Tribune correspondent
11:39 PM CDT, October 27, 2008

MOSCOW—Every three months, David Martin, a quadriplegic, returns to a small clinic here in the Russian capital for therapy he cannot legally get back home in Kalamazoo, Mich.: injections of stem cells taken from his own body, at a cost of $12,000 per visit.

Martin's American doctors have tried to dissuade him from believing that any improvement in his condition could be the byproduct of stem cell treatments, a therapy not yet approved in the U.S. No scientific evidence has ever shown that such treatments can repair human spinal cord injuries, experts say.

Yet Martin notices glints of progress—a twinge of sensation in one of his curled, still hands, a faraway feel of something cold on his skin. He attributes it to the stem cell treatments he has been getting in Moscow.

"It's definitely unfortunate that the U.S. isn't doing this," said Martin, 36, paralyzed since a car accident in 2006. "It's not an inexpensive venture, and it's not easy on the body to have to travel this distance."

Martin is just one of a growing number of Americans and Europeans turning to Russia, China and other countries where the stem cell industry operates unfettered—and largely unregulated.

NeuroVita, the clinic Martin has been visiting since 2007, attracts paraplegics and quadriplegics from around the world and maintains a waiting list for overflow clientele. Elsewhere in the capital, chic beauty clinics rely on stem cell therapy to beckon Moscow's moneyed elite, pitching the treatments as a surefire answer to wrinkles and stretch marks.