Posted on May 08, 2006, 5 a.m.
By Bill Freeman
Patricia Frost is a desperate woman. The multiple sclerosis she has fought for 14 years has slowly taken over her body and speech. The 66-year-old has not been able to walk for a decade and lost the use of her arms within the past year - leaving her unable to feed, wash or dress herself.
The 66-year-old has not been able to walk for a decade and lost the use of her arms within the past year - leaving her unable to feed, wash or dress herself.
After being told there is nothing more her British doctors can do for her, except to help ease her pain, Patricia decided to take a huge gamble with her health.
Along with her husband and full-time carer, Michael, she has taken out a loan for more than £12,000 to go to the Netherlands to be injected with stem cells - the subject of much controversy - and a procedure that is unlicensed in the UK.
The couple, from Hythe near Southampton, live on benefits and despite help from family, friends and local businesses, they say they have a long way to go before paying it back.
As Patricia waits in a hotel room the night before her treatment at the private Preventative Medicine Clinic (PMC) in Rotterdam, she explains how her MS controls her body.
"I can't read a newspaper unless somebody's turning the pages for me.
"I can't eat - somebody has to feed me. I can't even cuddle the grandchildren, which comes quite hard as you can imagine."
She adds: "I have spoken to people who have had this treatment that have improved even slightly. And even if I can get the use of my hands and arms back, it would make life much easier."
In conventional medical circles, it is agreed stem cells have the potential to evolve into other cells - and they could be used in the future to treat diseases - a potential repair kit for the human body.
The Department of Health acknowledges this potential and is investing £100m in stem cell research over the next two years.
Investigation into clinic
But it urges caution against seeking treatment or procedures that have not been subjected to rigorous clinical trials.
It told the BBC News website: "Much stem cell research is still in its infancy, and there is a long way to go before treatments are developed, but it has the potential to revolutionise medicine in this century in the way that antibiotics did in the last."
However, the Dutch clinic where Patricia will have her treatment is the subject of much controversy because it offers the procedure to patients as an experimental therapy.
They do not use embryonic stem cells - the subject of much ethical debate - but umbilical cord blood stem cells, which they say is taken from full-term babies with the parents' consent.
Doctors at PMC claim cord blood stem cells can help repair and regenerate nerve damage caused by MS. They say they have an 80% success rate at achieving some noticeable improvements in their patients' various conditions and claim they have never seen harmful side effects.
But they are being investigated by the Dutch Ministry of Health, Welfare and Sport after top neurologists in the Netherlands complained about their work.
The allegations include accusing the clinic of not having submitted proposals to carry out clinical trials to any research ethics committee in the Netherlands.
There is also controversy over how the cord blood stem cells are supplied. A Swiss company, Advanced Cell Therapeutics (ACT) based in Zurich, harvests them for PMC and almost a dozen other clinics around the world.
Staff friendly and welcoming
British stem cell scientists such as Professor Neil Scolding of Bristol's Frenchay Hospital, who carries out research for the MS Society, says ACT "refuses to give any scientific details of how they prepare the cells".
"Various attempts have been made to ask them".
BBC News approached ACT seeking information about their procedures, but it failed to respond despite saying it would.
Besides this, there is doubt over whether stem cells can help MS sufferers at all.
Professor Robin Lovell-Badge, a stem cell scientist at the National Institute for Medical Research, told BBC News: "I've been racking my brains trying to think how this sort of treatment could work.
"Because as far as I'm aware there is no sound scientific reason to propose that it would have any beneficial effect on MS."
All this is causing a huge storm in the medical world, but for Patricia the treatment offers some hope and she is prepared to take the risk.
Patricia arrives at PMC in Rotterdam, where she finds the staff are friendly and welcoming. She has spent two days in the city of Eindhoven having optional pre-treatments, which the clinic says will help detoxify her body.
For the first hour she is given a drip of Mannitol solution, which PMC says will "prepare the nervous system for taking up the stem cells".
She then has about one million cord blood stem cells passed into her body via the drip and a series of injections into her neck, back and navel, while she remains in her wheelchair.
Anneke Matthijssen, the doctor administering the cells, says: "Afterwards you can say it was wrong, it was this or it was that, but at this moment it's our purpose to give people a chance who have no chance at all."
The treatment is all over after four hours.
And after three exhausting days in The Netherlands, Patricia is ready to go home.
On the way back to the airport, she is astounded by what happens next.
As she sits in the taxi, she moves her neck to the side, "which I couldn't do before", she said.
She also lifts her arms up slightly, something she says she was also previously unable to do.
The sudden change is a lot for her family to take in. Her son-in-law Kevin Wade, who has accompanied her on the trip, is close to tears.
"It is absolutely unbelievable. Look, it's not even an hour since the stem cells went in," he says.
Whatever has or has not caused the change - it has given Patricia new hope and she has been told by the clinic it may take three months before the real benefits can be seen.Read Full Story