Originally created 07/18/02

Man travels far for stem cell treatment



JACKSONVILLE, Fla. - As a naval officer and accomplished tennis player, Rick Murray faced pretty good odds when it came to life's battles, big or small.

Then came the tennis match in 1998 when his son kept hitting to Mr. Murray's left, volleying past the tennis coach as he hesitated to his right.

"There was this half-second delay ... I knew something was wrong," Mr. Murray said.

Doctors diagnosed Mr. Murray with amyotrophic lateral sclerosis - also known as Lou Gehrig's disease - a rare nerve affliction that inhibits brain signals from reaching the muscles. The disease kills most patients within five years as it steadily disables muscles, including those that control breathing. There is no known cure.

Mr. Murray is fighting against long odds these days, traveling from Jacksonville to Ukraine this week to undergo therapy using stem cells - an extremely promising medical tool but one U.S. scientists say is a decade away from approved use here.

Stem cells are the body's "master cells" capable of growing into any tissue type. Researchers say they show promise to cure almost any disease, from heart disease to brain disorders.

In Mr. Murray's case, the hope is that embryonic stem cells taken from aborted fetuses can be used to repair damaged motor neurons failing to carry his brain's message to his muscles.

Although there is excitement, research in the United States on embryonic and less-controversial adult stem cells has not progressed beyond test tubes or experiments with animals. Scientists still aren't sure where stem cells should come from, how they should be introduced into a patient, or how to teach them to grow into a specific body part.

Embryonic stem cell research is being slowed by ethical concerns. President Bush prohibited further research, except on stem cells already available to scientists.

It could be five years before scientists are ready for human trials and longer before doctors can offer treatment.

The procedure is legal in Ukraine, where doctors say stem cells come from legal abortions.

"If that is the law, then so be it," said Mr. Murray, a 61-year-old father of three who isn't left with many other choices.

Mr. Murray, who is approaching an elite 20 percent who live five years past diagnosis, is encouraged by results two ALS patients say they received from embryonic stem cell treatments at the Cell Therapy Clinic in Kiev.

One said her condition hasn't gotten any worse. A Wyoming man with whom Murray has spoken says he regained the ability to walk.

"I've been battling this for more than four years. I've left few stones unturned. So I'm going to turn this one over," Mr. Murray said.

DR. ALAN BERGER of Shands Jacksonville said researchers in Tampa who used stem cells to treat a mouse with ALS showed the mouse lived longer than his untreated counterpart.

"I think it's too early to tell," Dr. Berger said. "The role of the physician is not to squash hope but to evaluate treatment."

Mr. Murray's risks appear minimal and benefits are possible, Dr. Berger said. The biggest downside appears to be the $16,000 Mr. Murray will pay out of pocket for intravenous injections of stem cells on four days.

Physicians with Cell Therapy Clinic could not be reached to discuss the procedure. In letters to Mr. Murray, physician Alexander Smikodub said it was against clinic policy to share previous patients' information but said there had been no negative results since treatment began last year.

Janice Power, a researcher with ALS Therapy Development Foundation, investigated the Cell Therapy Clinic treatment by talking with doctors. Ms. Power said she is not able to recommend the treatment.

Mr. Murray is not ready to give up.

"My hope is that a month from now, I won't be sitting here," he said. "I'll come down to the newspaper and help you write an article that says, 'Walking again, stem cells cure man."'