Stem-cell treatments raise hopes

Published: Saturday, July 21 2007 12:15 a.m. MDT

AMERICAN FORK — Many travelers to foreign countries have goals to see new sights and try exotic foods.

Travis Ashton's goal was a bit loftier — to receive stem-cell treatments at a hospital in China to help recover from a brain injury he suffered in a car accident seven years ago.

Travis, 18, and his parents traveled to Hangzhou, China, in June for a five-week stay at the Beike Biotechnology Clinic where Travis was to receive four stem-cell treatments. He received six.

"We had planned on four, and he ended up having two more," said Missy Ashton, Travis' mother. "The theory behind that is the more stem cells there are, the more that can develop."

Travis had all but one treatment through spinal injections. The last one was administered intravenously.

"They like to do one in your bloodstream," Missy Ashton said. She said the adult stem cells are harvested from umbilical cords and there were 10 million stem cells in each treatment.

She was counseled that much of the progress a patient sees comes within six months of having treatments.

The signs of progress might seem small to those not close to Travis' situation, but his mother said he can do things now he couldn't before.

"He started to have feeling in the back of his tongue," she said. "He has more control over his saliva. He drools, but that has decreased 75 percent."

She also said Travis can drink water now, something he had been unable to do since his accident. He can open and close his eyes without using his hand to manipulate the eyelids, and his hearing has also greatly improved.

"Once you build connections between nerves and the brain, you can build on that," Missy Ashton said. "Then it's about building muscles."

Travis' father, Jed Ashton, returned after one week to care for the family's other children. He is happy for the changes but isn't sure where the progress comes from.

"I can see some subtle differences," he said. "They could be from the physical therapy or the stem cells. I'd like to think the stem cells had some positive effects — I just couldn't say for sure."

Travis' care while at the hospital included more than just stem-cell treatments.

"They did speech therapy, massage therapy, physical therapy and acupuncture," Jed Ashton said. He added that Travis was scheduled

for therapy all day long, from 9 a.m. to 4 p.m. some days, and that kind of rigor can't be duplicated here because of time, family and money.

The $50,000 price tag for the trip, a good portion gathered through local fund-raisers, paid for Travis' treatments as well as airfare and food. Asked if Travis would return for more treatments, his mother said she's not over the jet lag of this trip but would consider it.

"If it's helpful to Travis, I can't see that anything would stop us," she said. The good thing about returning to the clinic is that the cost of his treatments will never rise.

"The prices go up every quarter," Missy Ashton said. "But once you've been, you are locked in at that price."

The clinic in Hangzhou is Chinese-run, but the lab is run by Americans with many American doctors and researchers on site.

She said the hospital had to open a second floor because so many people were there for the injections.

Missy Ashton thinks stem-cell treatments will be available in the United States, not in her lifetime, but perhaps for her grandchildren.

"I think that in the next 50 years or so there will be more done — more funding, more research," she said. "But it won't be available to this generation."

She said many people assume nothing is currently being done in this country.

"There's a misconception that the U.S. isn't doing anything, but they are, and President Bush is, too," she said. "It shouldn't be a political issue. It should just be common sense with some guidelines because there are ethical issues involved."

The measures of progress Travis gained from his treatments mean a lot to him and his family.

"In the rehab world, these are huge things," his mother said.


E-mail: knelson@desnews.com

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