At the Xishan Hospital, near Beijing, a remarkable medical pilgrimage is taking place. The sick and the dying are travelling here for a treatment pioneered by Dr Huang Hongyun. He claims he can restore functions that Western doctors said were lost forever.
He uses a technique that would be banned in the West, by taking cells from aborted foetuses and injecting them into the brains and spines of patients with spinal injuries and disease. Despite there being no clear clinical evidence that his methods work, hundreds of patients from all over the Western world are travelling to Dr Huang's clinic in search of a miracle.
In the last four years he has treated over 700 patients and his waiting list now stretches to the end of 2006. His treatment is based on groundbreaking research pioneered in the UK but some claim Dr Huang is racing ahead too quickly. Scientists and neurosurgeons point to a large gap in the provision of any clinical evidence or empirical data to back up his claims. They believe that Dr Huang is forging ahead without fully calculating the potential risks to his patients.
For Vic Washby and his wife Katrina, Dr Huang is their only chance. Vic was diagnosed with motor neuron disease or amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS) in 2002. ALS is a progressive muscle wasting disease which attacks the nerve cells in the brain and spinal cord. There is no cure or effective treatment and half of all people diagnosed with ALS die within 14 months. His journey to the Xishan Hospital could be his only chance of getting out of his wheelchair and walking again.
Vic is pinning his hopes on a dream that Dr Huang has been chasing for the last 20 years. Like many scientists around the world he has been searching for a way to repair the brain and spinal cord after injury and disease. The brutal truth is that once damaged the human nervous system cannot repair itself.
But one discovery has offered a glimmer of hope. Professor Geoffrey Raisman at the Institute of Neurology has spent the last 30 years investigating a single cell which has a remarkable property. The olfactory ensheathing cell has a unique ability to re-grow. Because of this extraordinary property, Prof Raisman believes that these cells can be used to repair spinal cord injuries.
Over the last few years, Dr Huang has applied this research by implanting olfactory ensheathing cells taken from aborted foetuses into patients with spinal cord injuries and with conditions such as MS, Parkinson's, strokes and ALS. While Prof Raisman recognises the scientific basis of Dr Huang's work and the potential of the cell, he believes that Dr Huang has not provided enough scientific evidence to prove his treatment is working.
While Western doctors and scientists argue about the efficacy of Dr Huang's procedure, Vic Washby and patients like him are taking the decision to travel to China for surgery into their own hands. This extraordinary international community of patients all share the bond of being medical pioneers, some even call themselves human guinea pigs. For many this is their only hope to staying alive.
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