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Stem Cell Hope, Hype

Save these precious cells and ensure your future health, coax a flurry of new, private tissue banks. They're getting ahead of the science.

March 05, 2007|Melissa Healy | Times Staff Writer

KEVIN MANNIX is a salesman and entrepreneur in the healthcare industry, a husband, father of two and the son of a man who died of a heart attack at 52. In matters of business and of health, he lives by the same principles: Do your research, hedge your bets, avoid regret and -- every once in a while -- take a leap of faith.

Mannix has acted to curb the medical risks he may have inherited from his father. He eats carefully, doesn't smoke and is a regular at his gym. At 51, his knees creak a little. But he maintains the athletic build that made him a star running back at Penn State and an NFL hopeful who signed briefly with the New York Jets and the Philadelphia Eagles.

Adult stem cells are Mannix's leap of faith. And after a fair amount of research, he's intent on putting his in a bank.

"I don't want to look back in the future and say, 'Whoops, I should have done that,' " he says. "I don't want to have any regrets about losing this opportunity."

Mannix is betting on the curative powers of adult stem cells -- his own stem cells -- to beat the odds still stacked against him. In the next couple of months, he and his wife Karen plan to travel from their home in Long Island, N.Y., to Encinitas to have stem cells harvested from their blood, then stored for their own future use. It is a medical procedure that could make them either pioneers in a brave new field of healthcare or victims of an industry selling hope beyond the current ability of science and medicine to deliver.

As stem-cell research has gathered momentum in recent years, these microscopic powerhouses have come to spark at least as much hope as they have controversy. And they have spawned new businesses eager to cater to this blossoming of public optimism. Private tissue banks, which offer to harvest and store adult stem cells for a client's future personal use, are among the most visible of these. And they are springing up across the country.

The result is an industry marked by hype, high cost and only a limited chance that the cells extracted and stored will be of use when the fog of scientific inquiry -- still very much underway -- clears.

These banks draw, in part, upon the excitement generated by embryonic stem cells. But the cells they glean are not the same. Adult stem cells exist in the blood and organs after a human has emerged from the womb, and remain there, hiding in a crowd of more specialized cells. They do not bear the same ethical baggage as their embryonic counterparts, because they can be harvested without creating or destroying new life. But scientists also believe they probably lack the wide-ranging curative potential that embryonic cells have.

Mannix, however, is a believer, and he's not the only one. In a future that he and many others see as dawning already, adult stem cells will heal the ravages of age, genetic inheritance and environment. They will treat and cure heart disease, cancers, autoimmune conditions such as lupus and rheumatoid arthritis, degenerative diseases such as Parkinson's and Alzheimer's and injuries including banged-up bones and joints and damaged spinal cords.

That future may never come, or it may come too late to benefit patients such as Mannix and his wife. It may require stem cells gleaned from embryos, not adult bodies. It may require adult stem cells from different sources than blood, or processed and stored differently than the methods used by banks starting up now.

Nevertheless, private tissue banks are drawing a growing number of customers such as Mannix, who expects to pay $6,000 to harvest his own stem cells from his bloodstream and $400 a year thereafter to keep them cryogenically stored for his future use.

NeoStem, the company that he has chosen to store his stem cells, has launched a $2.5-million plan to expand its services across the country in the next year. It joins a private tissue-banking industry that already includes more than two dozen companies storing the stem cell-rich blood of the umbilical cord harvested at the time of a baby's birth, one other bank storing stem cells from circulating blood, and an 8-month-old bank that draws and stores stem cells from the soft pulp of children's baby teeth.

In the coming years, stem cells extracted from fat may further broaden the appeal of private stem-cell banking. At least one publicly traded company -- Cytori Therapeutics of San Diego -- is developing plans to offer plastic surgery patients an opportunity to store these cells after undergoing liposuction procedures. Many others are expected to follow suit.

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