Miracle or Mirage Part 2: "The Road to China"
The road to China
Charleston man pursues medical miracle on other side of world
SERIES : THE CHINA EFFECT - STEM CELLS Miracle or mirage?
SHENZHEN, CHINA — Mid-summer in the smoggy south China coast is humid and blistering hot, like Charleston. The area also is prone to tropical storms, and Hal Burrows arrives just before a typhoon hits.
Hal is here to have stem cells injected into his back. He hopes they'll travel up his spinal cord and rebuild nerves damaged in a bicycle accident 20 years ago.
Now, 12 time zones from his home in Charleston, with rain and winds lashing the window in his room on the 14th floor of Nanshan Hospital, Hal wonders what he has gotten himself into.
But the winds die down soon enough, and from his window, Hal sees the city return to normal.
Hal has blue eyes, reddish hair and a goatee, which give his face a vaguely Nordic look. He gets restless quickly, and for crying out loud, he thinks, I'm in China! I gotta get out of my room. He climbs into his wheelchair, takes the crowded elevator down to the lobby and rolls toward the hospital gates.
Occasionally, he wheels past the fortune tellers gathered on the sidewalk, dressed in colorful Buddhist robes, hawking predictions to the sick and their families.
Sometimes, he pokes fun with the farmers selling steaming yams for 15 cents apiece from rusty 55-gallon drums. He touches the drum and shakes his hands and yells as if he's been burned, drawing laughs from passers-by unaccustomed to seeing a Caucasian man in a wheelchair howling.
Hal didn't really know what to expect from this hospital. He had never been to Asia before.
But he's pleasantly surprised. The hospital is in a plain white high-rise smudged from the smog that smothers the city day after day. The rooms are like most in older American hospitals, spare and cheerless, but they're clean and roomy enough. When he's homesick, he e-mails his wife, Debbie, from a recreation room computer, or he wheels around the halls and chats with other patients.
The hospital's 14th floor is devoted to foreign patients in China for stem cells. On the walls, simple signs in English and Chinese describe stem cells and how they work. Patients and their families mill about, speaking Italian, Portuguese and English. Some, like Hal, have spinal cord injuries.
Others have incurable diseases such as multiple sclerosis, Lou Gehrig's disease and Parkinson's disease. Several patients have ataxia, a genetic brain disorder that affects balance, speech and vision. The 14th floor is a fraternity of medical expatriates, all hoping they'll find in stem cells what they haven't in other medicines and treatments: a miracle cure.
By now, Hal is convinced he's making history. He talks about how he's one of the first Americans to be treated with stem cells in China. He doesn't think much about the dangers or possible side effects of these treatments. He hasn't checked out Web sites where American doctors caution patients to wait until tests show that stem cells really do work. He knows that his body's muscles are getting weaker every month, and that if he doesn't do something, someday soon he might not be able to move at all. Compared to that fate, he thinks, What do I have to lose?
Chapter 2: The Chinese Doctor
Dr. Sean Hu guides his gleaming black Buick Regal through Shenzhen's busy streets, past one of the world's tallest skyscrapers and an exhibition center with the floor space of 30 Wal-Marts. Three decades ago, Shenzhen was a fishing town of about 70,000 people. Now it has 12 million people, more than Los Angeles, and its highways are packed with BMWs, Lexuses and other late-model cars, most made in China. Hu points to a golf course near the high-rise where he lives. It's Sunday, but Hu's cell phone rings every few minutes, followed by a vaguely female voice that chirps in English, "You got message."
Hu is chairman of Beike Biotechnology Corp., the company that will inject the stem cells into Hal's spinal cord. Hu is 40 years old and has a smooth face that looks younger when he smiles. As he winds through the city's streets toward his lab, he pops in a homemade CD of his 12-year-old son playing jazz on the saxophone. Hu's future, like those of his patients, hinges on the success of stem cells.
He knows he's already come a long way from the mountainous region in China's interior where he was born, where his mother was a doctor and his father was a government official. He smiles as he says he once wanted to be a police officer, but exams for such positions were difficult when he was a teen, and that when he didn't pass, he went into medicine instead. He recalls how he excelled in medical school, and like many other talented Chinese doctors, went overseas for advanced training, earning a Ph.D. in 1988 in biochemistry at the University of Gothenburg, Sweden. He talks about his postdoctoral research in molecular biology at the University of British Columbia and how he started a dental equipment distribution business in Sweden and Finland. "In 1991, I didn't think I would come back to China."
He scans Shenzhen's booming skyline and explains how his attitude changed. He and a growing number of expatriate Chinese professionals saw that capitalism in China was no longer an experiment. China was where the opportunities were. He moved his companies here. Soon after, he discovered intriguing new research into stem cells.
Chapter 3: New Promise
In the 1960s, most scientists believed that the human nervous system was essentially irreparable — bad news for people who had strokes, brain damage and diseases of the nervous system.
But then researchers discovered self-renewing cells in the bone marrow of mice, and by the early 1970s, doctors were transplanting bone marrow in humans to treat leukemia and "bubble-boy" disease, children with severe immune deficiencies.
Over time, scientists learned that certain " stem cells" have an almost magical ability to change into other kinds of cells: Some turn into heart cells that pulse; others can become brain cells with octopus-like tendrils that connect to other brain cells and form neural networks.
Now, researchers talk about a revolution in medicine: If doctors can control stem cells and direct them to damaged and diseased areas of the human body, these cells might cure a host of diseases now considered incurable.
Hu knew about stem cells from his past studies of molecular biology, and in 2001, he started following the work of Dr. Yang Bo, a Chinese neurosurgeon and professor studying how to transplant stem cells into patients with Parkinson's disease and other brain injuries.
Hu sees how Chinese researchers break the backs of mice and inject stem cells into their spines. "You could measure the stem cells going to the brains of the mice, and three to four weeks later, they could stand up and move their tails," Hu says.
He helps fund professor Yang's trials on human patients, and between 2001 and 2004, doctors treat 400 Chinese patients suffering from diabetes, spinal cord injuries, cerebral palsy and autism.
"I was surprised by the results. I talked to each patient, and I realized this is going to be very good," he recalls.
Some of the findings are published in Chinese journals, but Hu knows these studies don't measure up in the West. That's because few if any involve double-blind methods in which one group of patients get stem cells and another gets a placebo. Good double-blind studies would prove that stem cells improved patients' conditions instead of the placebo effect — the healing phenomenon generated by patients' own hopes and positive thinking. Hu thinks it's just a matter of time before studies in the West confirm what he already believes: Stem cells will be the biggest revolution in medicine since antibiotics. So he decides to sell his dental equipment company and form Beike Biotechnology Inc., a partnership with Beijing University and Hong Kong University of Science and Technology and other investors.
Hu's company will use stem cells from the blood of umbilical cords of newborns, not human embryos — the source of so much controversy in the United States. He doesn't have ethical problems with using embryonic stem cells; it's just that the cells from umbilical cords are more easily controlled when grown in a lab.
He can treat patients immediately with these cells because the Chinese government doesn't consider stem cells a new kind of drug. Drugs would require clinical trials. Rather, the government regulates injections as if they were medical procedures similar to bone marrow transplants. Soon, Beike is growing stem cells in its lab.
Hu remembers one of his first patients was a 39-year-old man with a spinal cord injury, and the treatments don't go well at first.
"At the time, some of the doctors weren't confident about this ( stem cell) technology," Hu says. "They gave him three injections, and he said, 'I'm not getting any improvements, you guys are cheating me, I don't want to do it anymore.' And he goes back to his hometown. Three months later, he calls up and says he can stand up on his own. The doctor was so happy he went all the way to Hunan to see for himself. He came back very excited." That doctor would end up directing stem cell treatments at Nanshan Hospital in Shenzhen.
By the time Hal arrives in August 2006, Beike has treated 100 foreign patients from 30 countries. The company has 70 technicians, doctors and managers, and its lab is churning out 3,000 to 4,000 batches of stem cells a year. By now, Hu figures about 85 percent of his patients are seeing improvements, though he says, "a lot of these improvements are just a little bit. They feel sensations and get more muscle strength and bladder control."
As Hu talks about his work, his excitement builds. He says one of his goals this year is to coordinate a double-blind clinical trial of his own. He's making plans to set up new treatment centers in Thailand and Hungary. He's setting up partnerships with genetics researchers at the Veterans Administration Hospital in Palo Alto, Calif., and the British Imperial College. He thinks stem cells might someday be injected on a regular basis into healthy people as an anti-aging serum. Think of the market for that! He wants to create a brand, make stem cells into a commodity, maybe get Beike listed on NASDAQ someday. He works 14 hours a day. "You got message." His phone rings again and again. "You got message."
Chapter 4: Sudden Success
On a hot day in late July 2006, Hal gets his first injection.
"I noticed something immediately — it felt like someone was dragging a needle up my arm."
That surprises the doctors because they don't expect immediate results. Stem cells are like seeds; they take time to grow. On Aug. 6, Hal types an e-mail to his wife, Debbie, in Charleston.
"I can open and close my (left) fist 10 times without my fingers locking up. I have never been able to do that before."
He gets more injections.
On Aug. 22, he types another e-mail:
"I want you to be the first person in Charleston, USA, to know that I am walking again. I'm crying I'm so happy, tears of joy. It happened so suddenly. I was in the shower, and I noticed that I could move much easier. My whole trunk came alive. I knew something had happened. It was that fast."Tomorrow: Hal plans to return to China. Will stem cells really help?