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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

'Stem Cell' Treatment Arrives, But at a Price

APA nurse preparing to perform an injection at the Cellulait clinic, one of dozens of clinics and beauty salons in Moscow that claim to offer a range of "stem cell" treatments.
When Svetlana Galiyeva found a clinic offering to treat her multiple sclerosis with embryonic stem cells, she grabbed the opportunity. Five hundred and sixty thousand rubles ($20,000) later she is still in a wheelchair and desperate.

And there is no proof her injections had anything to do with stem cells.

While scientists worldwide are only studying stem cells, dozens of Russian clinics and beauty salons claim they are already using both adult and embryonic stem cells to treat everything from wrinkles to Parkinson's disease to impotence.

Scientists warn that while stem cells are still being researched in laboratories, treatment by clinics claiming to use stem cells may cost patients their health and fortunes. Moreover, they say, even though it's illegal, enforcement is lax and no one knows if the injections patients are getting contain stem cells.

Stem cells are the building blocks of the human body -- immature cells that can grow into bone, muscle and other tissues.

The cells are plentiful in the embryo and fetus and are believed to be more versatile than stem cells from adult bone marrow and fat. But embryonic stem cells are controversial because they involve destruction of human embryos.

In leading clinics around the world, most stem cell research is limited to the lab dish and animals.

In Russia, however, it's a different story.

Galiyeva, a 40-year-old gynecologist in the Ural Mountains city of Perm, developed multiple sclerosis nine years ago.

She gradually lost control over her muscles and was enduring nearly constant muscle spasms, leaving doctors pessimistic about her ability to recuperate.

"I understood what was awaiting me, it was either death or ... ," Galiyeva said by telephone from Perm.

Driven to despair, Galiyeva traveled to a Moscow clinic for a series of injections that her doctors said were embryonic stem cells, costing her about 560,000 rubles ($20,000).

Initially, her body nearly rejected the treatment with a fever of 40 degrees Celsius.

Her limbs then regained some sensation, but that didn't last.

"Continuing that treatment was useless," she said, bitterly.

Things didn't end there. She says her condition has improved after a new series of injections, said to contain adult stem cells, at Beauty Plaza, a private clinic in Moscow that advertises stem cell treatment for a variety of diseases.

She still cannot walk, but can stand unaided for brief periods, she said.

Meanwhile, hundreds of patients are rushing to Russian clinics and beauty salons that claim to offer embryonic stem cell therapy for a range of diseases as well as cosmetic therapy.

Dr. Roman Knyazev's Cellulait, a clinic in central Moscow, advertises injections of stem cells from aborted fetuses into thighs, buttocks and the stomach to help women get rid of cellulite and look younger.

Yelena, a 37-year-old Moscow entrepreneur, says they worked for her.

"After giving birth my belly was hanging like a rag and I had lots of stretch marks. Now it's all gone," she said, after shelling out 80,000 rubles ($2,850) for injections at Knyazev's clinic. She declined to give her last name.

But medical experts say the procedure carries potentially dangerous side effects.

"No one has been given any licenses for injecting [stem cells] -- these are only experiments," said Vladimir Smirnov, director of the Institute of Experimental Cardiology, who runs an adult stem cell bank.

"This is all being done at their own risk. This is all illegal," he said.

He said he knew of several state research institutes attempting occasional experimental treatment using adult stem cells from bone marrow and fat. Many other clinics, however, run with little regulation as to what they advertise and inject, Smirnov said.

Scientists say cultivating and isolating stem cells requires skill and expensive equipment that the clinics do not necessarily have. Therefore, what is claimed to be stem cells may be anything from a fetal tissue extract to skin cells. Some clinics reportedly use animal stem cells.

"If I was a patient I wouldn't want that to be done on me ... the risks are potentially very high," said Joshua Hare, director of the Cardiovascular Section at Johns Hopkins Institute for Cell Engineering in Baltimore, Maryland.

Andrei Yuriyev, deputy head of the Federal Health Care and Social Development Inspection Service, said the law permits only extraction and storage of stem cells -- not their use in treatment. Yuriyev said his service was investigating nearly 20 cosmetic clinics that claim to practice stem cell therapy.

With such vaguely defined regulations, however, dozens of clinics are continuing to operate.

Dr. Alexander Teplyashin, head of Beauty Plaza, says he has used adult stem cells from patients' or donors' fat and bone marrow to treat diabetes, vision disorders and several other diseases.

He acknowledges that what he is doing at his salon is technically not permitted.

"We are taking advantage of the loopholes in the law," Teplyashin said, adding, "What is not forbidden is allowed."