New cells for old

May 17, 2009
*Special to asia!
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American celebrity Don Ho’s successful stem cell treatment in Thailand may force President Bush to soften his stand against it.

For more than 40 years Hawaiian crooner Don Ho has made heads turn with his signature song “Tiny Bubbles” and his performance to packed audiences in Waikiki and Las Vegas. Now he is making heads turn again, but for a different reason.

On December 6 last year, Ho became the first American celebrity to undergo controversial stem cell treatment for his heart. The treatment was not allowed in the US, a result of President George Bush’s strong stand against stem cell research.

Ho, which had “an extremely weak heart which was pumping far less blood than a healthy organ” (to quote his cardiologist) flew to Bangkok’s Heart Hospital to go under the VesCell procedure. Developed by an Israeli company TheraVitae, this involved taking stem cells from Ho’s blood, and multiplying them in a laboratory in Israel. These cells were then injected into his heart in the hope of repairing damaged muscles, strengthening the pumping power, and eventually regulating his heartbeat.

TheraVitae performed its first adult stem cell heart treatment in May 2005. It claimed the procedure could strengthen a patient’s heart by 20 to 70 per cent.

It seemed to work well for Ho. “The procedure saved my life. Before that I could hardly walk, let alone sing,” said Ho, who at 75 was still performing full time before being laid low by his weak heart. Now he is up and about and recovering in an undisclosed location.

To Ho it is a miracle. Ho was suffering from a heart condition called nonischemic cardiomyopathy. It is a serious disease in which the heart muscle becomes inflamed and doesn’t function normally. In mid-2005 he was admitted to hospital with shortness of breath and had a pacemaker put in. That did not help.

Eventually Edward N Shen, Ho’s cardiologist, told him conventional surgery would be useless for him. Shen recommended that he try out the VesCell procedure in Thailand. It was the last resort. And it worked. For about $30,000, Ho was given a new lease on life.

Ironically, while VesCell is not allowed in America, the team that operated on Ho was American trained. The procedure was performed by cardiothoracic surgeon Dr Kit Arom. It was overseen by Dr Amit Patel of the University of Pittsburgh. Dr Arom is Thai, and certifie

d by medical boards in America. He was working in the University of Michigan medical centre until a few years ago, when he was recalled by King Bhumibol Adulyadej. The highly respected king, who will be celebrating his 60th year on the throne, is 80 this year and has suffered a heart condition for a decade. He had requested Dr Arom to come home to tend to his health.

Thailand has become a favourite destination for medical tourism. Its treatment of heart disease, perhaps because of the king’s condition, is cutting edge. It has attracted many pioneers who were lured to the ‘Land of the Smiles’ by a relaxed regulatory environment that allowed them to try out new procedures forbidden in other countries. In this aspect Don Ho is lucky—had his heart given way a year ago, he would most likely be dead, as VesCell was under development and not ready to be used on patients.

Don Ho’s near miraculous recovery from a near fatal heart disease has attracted widespread attention in the US. Predictably, it fuels the debate on President Bush’s controversial stand against popularising stem cell research. Bush is aligned with the religious right. He has been criticised by scientists, including Nobel laureate Roy J Glauber, for being more concerned with the religious impact of research rather than its scientific importance.

He was also criticised by the families of the late president Ronald Reagan and actor Christopher Reeve. Both died in 2004, the former of Alzheimer’s disease (a form of senile dementia) and the latter of a serious infection from a pressure ulcer, a common ailment for paralytics. Reeve, who rose to fame portraying the comic book hero Superman, broke his spine from a horse riding accident in 1995, and had since worked tirelessly to lobby for stem cell research for the treatment of spinal injury to no avail.

In Reagan’s case, his wife Nancy, the former US First Lady, said she believed research into embryonic stem cell research could lead to a cure for Alzheimer’s disease and for her husband. After Reagan’s death, she had urged the Bush administration to support the research, instead of spending too much time discussing the issue. Bush has blocked public funding of this type of research because of his ethical reservations about embryo research.

Much to Bush’s discomfort, stem cell research has become a hot issue for congressional, senatorial as well as presidential elections.

Stem cells are generic or undifferentiated cells that can be made into specialised cells, such as heart muscles.

More and more people who suffer from incurable diseases and their families are demanding that the government fund stem cell research in the hope of finding a cure.

And politicians are paying heed. Maryland governor Robert L Ehrlich Jr, up for re-election in November, has budgeted $25 million for a medical centre for the purpose. Others are following suit.

lee han shihLee Han Shih is the founder, publisher and editor of asia! Magazine.


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