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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?

In March, President Barack Obama issued an executive order that lifted Bush-era restrictions on federal funding for stem cell research, but much of the treatment is still a long way off, experts say.

Meanwhile, Costa Rican legislators are putting the finishing touches on a law to promote and regulate adult stem cell research and treatment across a spectrum of diseases. This could fuel further debate over techniques that U.S. doctors say have only produced anecdotal success — but it certainly won't stem the flow of stem cell medical tourism.

According to Solano, Americans already make up close to 90 percent of the stem cell patients at CIMA Hospital.

Kessler warned that clinics around the world are exploiting patients' hopes by offering treatment that he calls a "placebo effect," and hasn't been proven to work.

“There's really little if any evidence at the present time — where we are with the current technology — that stem cell therapies are useful for disorders like spinal cord injury, stroke, Parkinson's disease, multiple sclerosis and some of the other things that are being treated with stem cells,” Kessler said.

Determined to prove the experts wrong, Jennifer Blankenship, a 49-year-old resident of Denver, Colo., made her second visit to Costa Rica in August to treat MS.

Blankenship had looked around in the U.S. for stem cell treatment but could only find offers from university labs that “wanted to charge $100,000 to $150,000 for me to be a guinea pig,” she said. Last month she underwent two weeks of treatment at CIMA Hospital for about $10,000. A December 2008 study by the journal Cell Stem Cell found that international stem cell treatment hovers around an average of $20,000.

Blankenship said that within hours of her first IV injection, “I started moving my left leg, which I hadn’t moved for years."

Following her second visit, she said, “I’m so excited,” detailing what she described as further progress toward recovery. Costa Rican doctors conducted liposuction to extract and transplant stem cells from her own fat tissue, as well as transplanted further cells derived from umbilical cords. Blankenship said she was charged up with some 200 million stem cells. “I pictured them like little Pacmen,” she joked.

After the trip, Blankenship says she took five steps, then nine. She said: “In the coming weeks, my physical therapist and I are going to my neurologist’s office to show him how I can walk.” And once she can walk on her own again, she said, “I’d love to come to Costa Rica just for fun.”