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Last Updated: Wednesday, 11 January 2006, 18:30 GMT
Stem cell promise lures patients
By Damian Grammaticas
BBC Moscow Correspondent

Stem cell therapy
Stem cells are being used by beauty clinics
From a huge stainless steel cannister a laboratory technician lifts out a container of frozen human cells, clouds of nitrogen cascade to the ground.

These are human stem cells. They have been harvested in this Moscow clinic from a piece of fat cut from a patient's stomach.

Next door a middle aged woman is strapped to an operating table.

The defrosted cells are injected into her face.

She has paid more than $10,000 to have this treatment and is awake throughout.

When you inject stem cells into someone it's like putting good petrol in your car
Dr Alexander Tepliashin

The woman doesn't want to give her name.

"Some of my friends have been patients in this clinic," she said.

"I've seen what the treatment has done for them, so it was an easy choice to come here.

"I trust this place, that's the most important thing."

Elixir of youth

This is not a hospital, but a beauty clinic.

The radical new stem cell treatment is sold as the elixir of youth.

Stem cells
Big claims are being made on behalf of stem cells

The claim is that it will make you younger, more healthy, even extend your lifespan.

"When you inject stem cells into someone it's like putting good petrol in your car," said the clinic's director Dr Alexander Tepliashin.

"The person blossoms, their skin colour improves, they get more energy, their hair and nails become better.

"It's natural. Stem cells help fix any organs that have problems."

In the West scientists are still cautious, investigating stem cells in strictly-controlled trials.

Lack of regulation

But in Russia, looser regulation means scientists here are forging ahead, selling stem cell treatments to those prepared to pay for them.

Doctor Tepliashin points to his glossy skin and says he experimented on himself first.

"I have no diseases at all, not even a cold, I have a really good immune system.

"In the past many doctors tested treatments on themselves before giving them to their patients.

"So I'm sure it's safe. I think Russia can become a pioneer in using stem cells."

Moscow is experiencing a craze for stem cell treatments.

In any ordinary chemist you can buy stem cell tablets and creams which promise to reinvigorate you.

Fear of problems

Stem cells are the building blocks for all tissue in our bodies.

Many scientists around the world are worried
Dr Ramil Khabriev

The hope is they could be a powerful medical tool, providing cures for a huge range of conditions.

If so they could revolutionise medicine. But they could also prove dangerous.

Dr Ramil Khabriev, the head of Russia's Public Health Agency, is alarmed by the rapid growth in their use in Russia because they could have serious side effects.

"It's not only me, many scientists around the world are worried, because nobody knows what the consequences of using stem cells are," he says.

"The aim is to inject the cells into your body where they transform into any type of cell you need.

"But they could cause cancer. There's a very big risk of that."

Clinics closed

Russia's government has already closed down several beauty centres offering stem cell treatments.

Hanna Czarnecki
Hanna Czarnecki knows there is a risk

But it has also issued licences to two clinics that are developing medical uses for the cells.

In one of those clinics blood is being drained from a patient's arm, the stem cells separated out by machine.

The woman is lying immobile, she was paralysed in a car crash several years ago.

A concentrated solution of the cells will be injected back into her spine just below the site where her spinal cord is severed.

The clinic makes remarkable claims.

"We will inject the stem cells into the central nervous system," says one of the doctors.

"We think there is a chance she can get some movement back and if she does she could even be completely rehabilitated. It's even possible she could walk again."

In the clinic's gymnasium Hanna Czarnecki, also paralysed from the waist down is getting intensive physiotherapy.

Expensive risk

She has come all the way from America and paid $40,000 for this experimental treatment.

One of an increasing number of foreigners prepared to take the risk if there is a chance she can walk again.

"I just don't want to spend the rest of my life in a wheelchair, I want something more," says Hanna.

"I understand there is a risk. But it's one I am prepared to take."

Western researchers though are sceptical that stem cells could repair Hanna's spine.

They are concerned that Russian doctors are already treating people without knowing what effect the cells really have, or what the dangers are.

But as long as there are patients prepared to take the risk it seems Russian clinics will be offering these untested therapies and charging huge sums of money for them.

Q&A: Stem cells
19 May 05 |  Health

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