I noted a few days ago that causes for autism seem to proliferate like wildflowers: Look away for one moment and there is another one springing up. It is the same with treatments for autism; perhaps it would not be unuseful to feature an “autism treatment of the week,” if only to underscore how many there seem to be. The latest is stem cell therapy, as noted in a July 11th Business Wire press release: “The Institute for Cellular Medicine (www.cellmedicine.com) announced today what appears to be the first publication in a peer reviewed journal outlining scientific rationale for the use of stem cells in the treatment of autism.” The Institute for Cellular Medicine has a clinic in Mexico; its director, Dr. Frank Morales, is listed as “board certified” in “Hyperbaric Medicine” and “Oxidative Medicine,” both of which are connected to some “alternative” and unproven treatments for autism. Dr. Morales is one of the authors of an article, Autism Stem Cell Therapy, which was published in the June 27th Journal of Translational Medicine.
Or, if not to Mexico for stem cell treatment, you can go to China: The July 2nd Wall Street Journal reported on parents who are taking their autistic children to China for stem-cell injections at a cost of $10,000. (The article is only available via subscription; a WSJ blog contains a summary of the article.)
Dozens of foreigners a month, many of them children, have been flying to a handful of hospitals in China, seeking stem-cell injections for a variety of conditions. There is no widely accepted scientific evidence that the procedures work or are even safe. Nonetheless, desperate patients are spending thousands of dollars, hoping to find cures for brain injuries, cerebral palsy and even autism — a developmental disorder with uncertain origins and a range of symptoms, from the failure to develop language skills to the inability to sense the feelings of others.
Some stem cells have the potential to turn into different cells, including muscle, blood and brain cells, leading scientists to believe that they may be useful in treating medical disorders. In the U.S., embryonic stem cells have been hugely controversial because researchers must destroy a days-old human embryo to harvest them. Chinese doctors use different, more mature stem cells from umbilical-cord blood, brain tissue of aborted fetuses and other sources.
These types of treatments aren’t allowed in the U.S. The National Institutes of Health supports research on adult and embryonic stem cells as therapy for a variety of disorders, but Naomi Kleitman, program director for the National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke, notes that the cells “are still being investigated at a basic level in animal models.”
Last March, Bruce Dobkin, the medical director at the neurologic rehabilitation and research program at the University of California, Los Angeles, published a report in a peer-reviewed medical journal on the work of a Chinese spinal-cord researcher who has offered stem-cell therapies to foreigners for years. Dr. Dobkin’s study said none of the seven spinal-injury patients who were observed experienced significant improvements, and five suffered potentially dangerous complications.
The article profiles the experience of Christina Bogert of San Jose, CA, an aerospace engineer for Lockheed Martin Corp; in June 2006, she took her 10-year-old autistic son Douglas to receive five injections at a hospital in Shenzhen, a city not far from Hong Kong.
After the month of injections, Ms. Bogert and Doug waited for their flight home in Hong Kong’s airport. Doug was running circles around his mother. Somehow, he had lost his shoes. Ms. Bogert was hopeful the treatments would help, but unsure if they would return for more. “I’ve played guinea pig so many times with my kid already,” she said. “I don’t really want to do it again.”
Back home in San Jose, Calif., she watched her son’s behavior closely, looking for hints of progress. There were some hopeful signs. Doug’s handwriting, which used to be barely legible, began to improve, according to his mother. When his parents tried to teach him his telephone number, they figured they would have to break it into three parts. But the first time they showed him the number in full, they say, he memorized it immediately.
But since these “encouraging surprises,” Bogert has not seen any progress and does not plan a return trip to China. And I’m wondering what will be the next headline-making “cure-all treatment” for autism?