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Stem cell tourism in Central America

Americans are flocking to Costa Rica for stem cell treatments. Is it a miracle cure or false hope?

SAN JOSE, Costa Rica — Dr. Orlando Morales is something of a celebrity at Costa Rica’s University of Medical Science, sauntering through the halls in his white lab coat. On a recent walk, students and faculty greeted him with “Feliz cumpleanos, doctor.” He just turned 68.

With the excitement of a young doctor fresh out of medical school, Morales’ eyes light up when he observes the petri dishes that harvest “celulas madre,” or stem cells, from mice.

“It’s practically science fiction,” Morales said of what he considers the medicine's new miracle worker. Morales is one of the firmest believers around in the power of stem cell treatments.

“After a heart attack, they can begin to make new tissue. In a gland, which for example has to make insulin, the cells begin to create insulin. Nervous tissue, they regenerate it … It’s a panacea,” he said.

An increasing number of foreigners are undergoing stem cell treatment in Costa Rica for ailments from bone fractures to multiple sclerosis. Costa Rican doctors say they are providing these medical tourists with groundbreaking treatments. But stem cell scientists in the U.S. accuse Costa Rica of offering false hope by pushing techniques that have not been scientifically proven.

Dr. Fabio Solano — who directs the stem cell institute at San Jose’s CIMA Hospital, one of the country's leading private hospitals — says his team has treated as many as 400 patients with procedures that involve stem cells.

Costa Rica has eschewed the contentious debate around stem cells by prohibiting work with human embryos and instead promoting research on what's known as "adult" stem cells — derived from tissue including body fat and umbilical blood or tissue. In Costa Rica, where Catholicism is the state religion, working with human embryos is out of the question.

Embryonic stem cells are considered a goldmine that could lead to treatment for any number of ailments. Unlike adult stem cells, embryonic ones can evolve into any of more than 200 cell types.

And yet, Solano said, many "miracle" treatments have been accomlished with adult stem cells. "We have demonstrated that adult stem cells are as good as embryonic."

Success stories have grabbed media attention, with TV networks running stories like “Paralyzed valley woman holds hope in Costa Rica treatment” and “Glenburn boy returns from Costa Rica after having adult stem cell therapy.”

But the buzz has made doctors in the U.S. nervous.

“The lay press is unfortunately replete with many overstatements and misconceptions about what can be accomplished in the short term by stem cell biology,” said Dr. Jack Kessler, an expert in stem cell research at Northwestern University’s Feinberg School of Medicine in Chicago, Ill.