SAN JOSE, Costa Rica (Reuters) - Costa Rica is cracking down on an unauthorized stem cell clinic that has attracted hundreds of foreigners seeking relief from degenerative diseases and serious injuries.
Better known for its idyllic tropical beaches and lush cloud forests, Costa Rica's many hospitals and clinics have made medical tourism one of the fastest growing segments of its tourism sector, the motor of its economy.
They lure tens of thousands of foreigners seeking surgery, dental work, cancer treatment, cosmetic surgery, and dozens of other procedures at a fraction of their cost in the United States.
Until this week, one of those draws was stem cell treatment, using master cells gleaned from umbilical cords, fat and elsewhere.
The health ministry last month ordered the country's largest stem cell clinic to stop offering treatments, arguing there is no evidence that the treatments work or are safe.
"If (stem cell treatment's) efficiency and safety has not been proven, we don't believe it should be used," said Dr. Ileana Herrera, chief of the ministry's research council. "As a health ministry, we must always protect the human being.
The clinic's owner, Arizona entrepreneur Neil Riordan, told Reuters he closed the clinic and admitted the treatments, involving the removal and re-injection of stem cells, had not been approved by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration.
"I think her point was that it is not FDA approved," he said in a telephone interview from Panama.
The ministry said the clinic had a permit to store the adult stem cells, extracted from patients' own fat tissue, bone marrow and donated umbilical cords, but is not authorized to perform the treatment.
Some of his patients were outraged that the clinic was forced to close.
"I think it's ridiculous, in all honesty," said Cranston Rodgers, a 67-year-old former billing materials salesman from Las Vegas, who received treatment from the clinic three years ago for an aggressive case of multiple sclerosis.
"I know what it did for me. I haven't used a cane or a scooter since I used the first treatment."
Since Riordan's Institute of Cellular Medicine opened in 2006, about 400 foreigners, mostly from the United States, have undergone the experimental treatment unavailable in North America and Europe to treat multiple sclerosis, spinal injuries, diabetes and other ailments.
Raul Montejo, a 48-year-old South Florida neurologist who was paralyzed from the waist down in October when he crashed into a telephone pole while driving home, said he got some feeling back in his leg after treatments.
"I'm not getting up and running, but I'm making very good progress," Montejo said in an interview at the clinic in April.
But other experts note that without controlled clinical trials, there is no way to know if the treatment is making such differences or some other factor, and worry that the clinic exploits ill patients' desperation with an unproven remedy.
The International Society of Stem Cell research has cautioned against so-called stem cell tourism.
"The (U.S.) clinical trials are ambiguous at the moment," said Dr. David Scadden, co-director of the Harvard Stem Cell Institute in Boston.
"When these kinds of treatments are proposed, they're being essentially marketed by virtue of the anecdotal report. I feel the danger of exploitation is extremely high."
Riordan's team uses adult stem cells, which can be found throughout the body. These master cells give rise to many different tissues and blood cells and are standard treatments for leukemias and a few other genetic diseases.
They are different from embryonic stem cells, taken from human embryos. Costa Rica is heavily Roman Catholic and the use of embryonic stem cells, taken from human embryos, is prohibited.
While still in the clinical trial phase in the United States, researchers are working to use stem cells to treat heart disease, Parkinson's disease and other disorders.
But Riordan has not followed the careful procedures more common in a clinical trial, which involve checking patients given the treatment against patients who have a sham therapy to rule out the placebo effect.
Riordan, who spent years developing cancer vaccines in Arizona, but has never treated a patient with stem cells, calls the treatment groundbreaking.
"I've seen more medical firsts in the past four years than probably most people ever see in their lives," Riordan, who operates a larger clinic he plans to expand in neighboring Panama, said in an interview. "For me it's very exciting."
Riordan has a U.S. company called Aidan Products that sells, among other things, a nutritional supplement that his team says can stimulate the body's production of blood stem cells.
He is also chairman of Arizona-based Medistem Inc. a company that seeks to commercialize stem cell therapies, particularly with cells extracted from menstrual blood.
Even patients who have seen positive results refuse to classify Riordan's therapy as a miracle treatment.
Holly Huber, a 37-year-old business old business developer from San Diego, who was diagnosed with secondary progressive multiple sclerosis, said she began feeling her feet for the first time in a year three weeks after she was injected with stem cells harvested from abdominal fat.
"I'm not going to say it's 100 percent. That's not reasonable. But can I function? Yes," she said.
Huber said she had spent $300,000 on drug and holistic treatments in the United States with little result, and turned to the $30,000 stem cell treatment in Costa Rica.
"I didn't have anything to lose." she said.
Editing by Maggie Fox and Kieran Murray