Miracle or Mirage Part 3: "REALITY CHECK"

Reality check
Hal Burrows has seen amazing results from his first stem cell injections — and so have other patients. Will his hopes for a miracle cure be realized?

By Tony Bartelme

Monday,May 28, 2007

SHENZHEN, CHINA — The Australian journalists pile into Hal Burrows' hospital room and set up the camera. They're doing a documentary for National Geographic called "Supercells." Hal squirms in his wheelchair, primed to tell his story. OK, they say, we're recording.

Hal warms up by talking about how he injured his back in a bike accident 20 years before, and how it left him with very little motion in his arms and legs.

He says he barely could make a fist with his left hand before coming to China, and explains how doctors here injected stem cells into his spine. Then he holds out that bum left hand — and flexes it over and over.

"Pretty amazing," he says with a smile, and now he's rolling; he feels stronger now, he says; he didn't have hope before he came to China; he's touching the technology that will change so many lives; he's just so darn excited. "I can't believe I'm in a hospital room, in China, getting stem cells!"

Hal is a ham, and he knows he's laying it on thick for the cameras, but why not? Look at what happened to Dave Aldrich.

Dave is in a room down the hall.

He's 49 years old, from Delray Beach, Fla., and also has a spinal cord injury. Five years ago, Dave fell head-first off a boat anchored in shallow water. He woke up from a coma a few days later paralyzed from the chest down. When he arrived in China, Dave could barely move his legs, and his vision was so blurry he couldn't read or watch TV. Doctors injected stem cells four times into his lower back and twice into his blood stream through an IV drip. By the third injection, Dave's legs were stronger, but what amazed Hal and others on the floor was what happened to Dave's vision, how one day Dave's brother handed him an e-mail from a well-wisher back home, and for the first time in years, Dave could read a letter.

Besides Dave, Hal also talks often with another patient with a damaged spinal cord, Gabi Razvan from Romania. Gabi tells him he has more feeling in his fingers since his injections and more control over his bladder. Hal says his bladder control is better, too, and what a difference that makes.

Hal talks to patients who say they're getting their sexual functions back, feeling their feet for the first time in years and regaining balance lost because of nerve damage. Other patients say they haven't felt any effects yet, but they're hopeful the stem cells will take hold soon. Hal extends his stay in Shenzhen for another month and signs up for four more injections.

When he flies home to Charleston in September, he's already thinking about his next trip back.

Chapter 2: Back in Charleston

In Charleston, Hal falls into a funk. He misses the adrenaline rush of traveling to China, the smells of the roadside vendors and the energy of the markets. His wife, Debbie, worries that he's losing ground and helps him book a flight back to China for a second series of injections. With money he saved from the sale of a home he once had on Folly Beach, he wires another $13,000 to Beike Biotechnologies Inc., the Chinese company that does the injections.

A few days before he sets off, he has an appointment with Dr. Steve Takacs, a respected neurosurgeon at the Medical University of South Carolina. Takacs is excited about Hal's next trip. He's enthusiastic about the potential of stem cells. He says that when it comes to new medical treatments, societies often move more slowly than individuals; after all, governments can afford to wait and see if a treatment or drug works, but sick people often don't have that luxury. Who knows? If he were in Hal's shoes, he might head to China, too.

But Takacs also wonders how doctors will control the stem cells. He gives Hal a scare. He tells him that certain stem cells can create tumors. That's news to Hal. No one in China ever mentioned tumors.

Still, Takacs' warning is just a speed bump. Hal's headed to China no matter what. And this time, he's getting stem cells — and surgery.

Surgery? Instead of injecting stem cells into his spinal cord, surgeons will operate on his neck and place stem cells directly on his old injury. He says he'll be one of the first foreign patients to get this procedure. A few days before he leaves, he says, "Yeah, I know I'm a guinea pig."

He boards his plane in Charleston the morning of Feb. 8 and flies to Chicago. From there, it's over the North Pole to China, a 15-hour flight. He lands just before the 2007 Lunar New Year holiday, which lasts for two weeks and shuts down much of the country. This is the year of the boar, and according to the Chinese zodiac, people born under this sign are single-minded about pursuing their goals. They tend to see things in black and white. Retreat? Not an option for "boar" people. Hal was born in 1959, another year of the boar.

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Soon after he arrives, he gets bad news.

Doctors tell him they tried the surgery on another patient, but the patient didn't fare well. They're canceling Hal's surgery. They need to perfect the procedure. Hal protests. He flew all the way to China for this surgery, he says. The doctors apologize and encourage him to get more injections, maybe after the New Year. At night, as he waits, Hal peers out his window as fireworks splash light and smoke across the city.

Chapter 3: Hope and doubts

A few miles away from the hospital in Shenzhen, inside a special air-tight room, a technician with Beike Biotechnologies places a new batch of stem cells under a microscope, making sure the cells are healthy and uncontaminated.

Dr. Sean Hu, chairman of Beike Biotechnologies, watches the technician through tall plate-glass windows. His cell phone rings over and over. He ignores it. Hu's lab makes about 3,000 to 4,000 batches of stem cells a year. Someday soon, he might need to make even more. His company is expanding across China and studying sites in Europe. Patients from all over the world are e-mailing for more information and to schedule injections. Because of this demand, he's been able to charge patients more money — as much as $20,000 for a series of injections — nearly twice as much as when he started. Reporters are taking notice of his company's success, and all this attention is starting to give Hu some headaches.

Take that story in Business Week with the headline " Stem- Cell Refugees." It describes how a factory worker from Illinois travels to China for stem cells and regains his ability to sweat, among other improvements. The article also says Chinese doctors are "more adventurous than Western doctors in treating patients with stem cells" and quotes researchers in North America saying that patients should wait until scientists do more clinical trials with humans. A Chinese newspaper translates a sentence from the story, and Hu says it casts his company's work in a negative light, something the Chinese government doesn't appreciate. He spends hours reassuring government officials about what he's doing. "Sometimes, it's not easy being a boss," he sighs.

No doubt Hu's taking a gamble. By charging foreign patients thousands of dollars for treatments and physical therapy, he's raising more money than he would by treating domestic patients — money he needs to expand his company. He also is banking that treating foreign patients will give his company more credibility in international medical circles.

But he's doing this all now under the spotlight of the Internet. Many of his patients are setting up Web sites and blogs about their experiences. This means that his company's successes or failures are just a Google-search away. It means that anyone can weigh in on what's happening. Some noted doctors are doing just that.

Such as Dr. Wise Young, a neurosurgeon at Rutgers who discovered a drug used to treat spinal cord injuries. Time magazine named him one of "America's best scientists." Young spends roughly four hours a day on the Internet counseling spinal cord patients. In one Internet forum, he warns patients about scams where doctors advertise experimental treatments. He cites a group in Tijuana, Mexico, that uses shark embryos to treat spinal cord injuries.

When it comes to stem cell injections, he writes: "I do not want to cast doubt on the reports of people who are returning from Shenzhen saying that they have improved as a result of the therapy. I accept their claims that they are improving but I don't understand the mechanism ... My advice to people is to wait."

Chapter 4: Back to China

Today, Hal gets his 11th injection.

Like every other day this week, a blanket of smog has turned Shenzhen's sky dark. It fits Hal's mood. He's grown skeptical about stem cells. He wonders whether patients are improving because they're also receiving acupuncture treatments and doing physical therapy. Hal refuses to do physical therapy, thinking, if I get any improvements, I want to make sure it was the stem cells. Hal still jokes with the nurses as they wheel him down a hall to the treatment rooms, but their faces show they're growing weary of his antics.

This afternoon, while Hal waits for his stem cells, a doctor tries to inject stem cells into Donny Wayne Lewing.

Donny Wayne, 43, is from a small town in Louisiana. His spine was crushed in a motorcycle accident in 1988. In 2005, he traveled to a Beijing stem cell treatment center unaffiliated with Beike. He saw minor improvements after those injections but contracted spinal meningitis, a potentially deadly infection. He recovered and decided to try Beike, shelling out $20,000 for four stem cell injections into his spine and one intravenous transfusion. "Hey, desperate people do desperate things," he said cheerfully one night before the injection. "I didn't want to be 80 years old and never say I tried."

But today doctors have trouble injecting the stem cells into his mangled spine. Later, they propose injecting stem cells through his skull. "Hell no," Donny Wayne tells them. Let's try again, a little lower in the spine, they say, and this time they successfully pump in the stem cells. Months later, he says he hasn't felt any improvements.

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It's Hal's turn next.

They wheel him into a room in the corner of the hospital. Below, children are playing basketball and soccer on a school field. Hal is wearing a blue T-shirt with "Charleston, South Carolina" written in white. He curls into a fetal position, as a nurse dabs his back with a disinfectant. A doctor inserts the needle, and the stem cells flow into his back.

Hal gets four more injections during the next two months.

He sees no improvements whatsoever.

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As Hal waits to return home, the worldwide debate over stem cells heats up. California, Massachusetts and other states are proposing or funding billion-dollar research programs into stem cells, fed up with what they say is a lack of leadership from the Bush administration. The New York Times runs a story about how sports doctors think stem cells could help athletes with career-ending injuries grow new knee ligaments and elbow tendons. A few days before Hal's return trip to Charleston, the Journal of the American Medical Association reports how Brazilian and U.S. researchers used stem cell injections to help 14 young diabetics reduce or stop taking their insulin shots. The study's results don't surprise people at Beike. They've been treating diabetics for more than two years.

As Hal prepares to leave, U.S. senators pass a bill to ease restrictions on stem cell research. With the president threatening a veto, Orrin Hatch, a Republican senator from Utah, takes the Senate floor and says that when he thinks about stem cells, "I imagine diabetics without insulin pumps. I imagine patients with Parkinson's disease who sprint rather than shuffle. I conceive of patients with spinal cord disease or injuries who stand up and walk again."

Chapter 5: Lost in China

Hal flies home in late April.

He's overstayed his visa, and Chinese immigration officials tell him to fork over a $700 fine if he wants to leave the country. His luggage gets lost on the plane transfer from Beijing to Chicago. He misses his flight from Chicago to Charleston, and arrives the next morning frazzled, in the same blue Charleston T-shirt he wore during his injections.

Debbie, his wife, meets him at the elevator in the airport.

"I missed you so much," he tells her. "I feel like a wreck."

Hope propelled him to China twice, but hope took him only so far. He's still waiting for that miracle cure, and he's confident he's closer to finding it than ever. He might even go back to Shenzhen someday. Or maybe Thailand, or some other place where doctors are treating patients with stem cells. "I still think stem cells are the future. But I'm going to wait a couple years." He wheels toward the luggage counter to report that his bags are still somewhere in China.

Reach Tony Bartelme at 937-5554

or tbartelme@postandcourier.com.


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