A desperate injection of stem cells and hope
Tom Hill was just the type of patient BioMark was looking for.

The company was launched in the summer of 2002, less than a year before Tom found its website. It began small, in a rented condominium shared by its founders, Laura Brown and Steve van Rooyen, just a few miles from Tom's house.

At first, the company survived patient to patient, each paying as much as $21,000 per treatment.

Word was spreading. It was a good time for a stem cell business.

The once exotic science was in the news almost daily. In August 2001, President Bush allotted federal funds for stem cell research but said they could not be spent on the study and development of new lines of cells from human embryos. It was a compromise to address the concerns of religious conservatives and others who opposed any destruction of human embryos.

The restrictions came under attack from high-profile figures, including former First Lady Nancy Reagan and actor Christopher Reeve, fomenting a national debate that turned "stem cell" into a household term.

Reports of each new scientific advance circulated rapidly — in the media and on Internet message boards for people with incurable diseases. Stem cell clinics began popping up in China, Ukraine, Barbados and other places.

Brown and Van Rooyen built their business on the idea that science had already proved the therapeutic power of stem cells. BioMark was simply making it available to the world.

The company had a scientific advisory board, a professional-looking website and doctors to administer the therapy in Atlanta.

"When something this powerful, this beautiful, is laid in your hands, in your path, you give everything you have to it," Brown said in an interview with The Times last fall.

At least 220 patients had received BioMark injections, she said.

The therapy, as advertised, was simple: an injection of 1.5 million stem cells in the abdomen. Everybody got the same type of cells, regardless of their disease.

"Once in the body, cells migrate to the site of the disease and begin producing the needed cells," explained a BioMark information packet.

BioMark cells, Brown told patients, were free from the "right-to-life issues" slowing the development of stem cell cures in the U.S. The cells did not come from embryos, but from blood harvested from umbilical cords after childbirth.

One BioMark brochure carried a disclaimer that the treatment was not approved by the Food and Drug Administration.

But some patients saw that as a badge of honor. Someone was working to help them, even if that help ran afoul of the government.

It infuriated Tom that politics had trumped science.

"People suffering from disease are told they have to wait for their cures," he wrote in a letter to his U.S. senators. "Many of these patients do not have time to wait and a research delay could be a death sentence."

Tom created a website to protest the federal restrictions. After 25 years as a Republican, he renounced his party membership.

He told Valerie about BioMark and instructed her not to tell his doctors.