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Costa Rica: no longer a destination for stem cell tourists?

Stem cell institute shuts down after Costa Rica says adult stem cell treatment is "unproven."

The health authorities said the Stem Cell Institute was licensed only to work as a “stem cell bank” for storage and research, but never gained authorization to administer treatment on patients. Costa Rica prohibits all work on human embryos.

Leading stem cell researchers in the United States say the treatment’s success is wildly overstated.

Dr. Jack Kessler, an expert in stem cell research at Northwestern University’s Feinberg School of Medicine in Chicago, told GlobalPost last year the practice has a long way to go to treat disorders like spinal cord injuries, strokes, Parkinson’s disease or MS. He warned that medical tourists are being fed false hope, and even the placebo effect, rather than a proven cure.

While Costa Rica’s government wants to see results from clinical trials, Solano insists use of the treatment should go forward right now. “Progress in medicine does not only come from clinical tests,” he said, pointing out that pioneers in organ transplants such as Dr. Christiaan Barnard did not perform such tests.

“In this practice, we surgeons especially have to innovate all the time,” Solano said.

Costa Rica’s best-known anecdote of stem cell success is 30-year-old pilot Juan Carlos Murillo, who survived a plane crash landing May 13, 2008, with three cracked vertebrae. Doctors said he might never leave his wheelchair. At San Jose’s Supreme Court, Murillo held just one crutch when he walked into the courtroom, saying it was thanks to his free treatment at the Stem Cell Institute.

Murillo was expecting a new injection the week of the court hearing. When he heard about the institute’s closure and the government’s stance, he said, he went into shock. He said, “They’re taking away the last thing we’ve got.”

The shuttered institute, owned by Arizona entrepreneur Neil Riordan, announced it is concentrating its operations in Costa Rica’s neighbor to the south, Panama, claiming that the Panamanian government “has clearly defined laws that regulate adult stem cell therapies.”

Riordan could be in for another rude awakening.

The Panamanian Health Ministry denies permitting stem cell treatment and said no hospital or clinic in the country practices it. Dr. Eduardo Lucas Mora, the ministry’s general director, said any treatment conducted in Panama “must, among other things, demonstrate its effectiveness. You cannot come and experiment on a person and use medicine that is not yet proven.”