At the junction of desperation and the fantasies of science is a business opportunity.
Stem cell clinics offering unproven therapies for a range of diseases have become a multimillion-dollar industry, operating in Mexico, Ukraine, Barbados, China and elsewhere.
The backgrounds of the people behind the clinics vary — many see themselves as crusaders for the disabled and dying.
The field of stem cells is so new that almost anybody can claim its potential. Without subjecting their therapies to clinical trials — the standard of Western medicine — it is difficult to know if the treatments work.
The clinic operators can point to satisfied patients but not to scientific proof.
At least three clinics trace their roots to the Institute for Problems of Cryobiology and Cryomedicine in Kharkov, Ukraine. Founded in 1972, the institute researched techniques for freezing biological samples for use in medicine and agriculture.
For nearly two decades, scientists at the institute experimented with solutions made from aborted fetuses, injecting people for ailments including diabetes, multiple sclerosis and depression.
Dr. Valentin Grischenko, the institute director who led much of the research, said many patients showed significant improvements.
In the early 1990s, Ukrainian researchers familiar with the institute's work started a Kiev company called EmCell, charging $25,000 per treatment.
Some of its first American patients came about 10 years ago with Dr. William C. Rader, a Malibu psychiatrist who ran a chain of eating disorder clinics and worked as an on-air medical expert for KABC-TV in Los Angeles during the 1980s.
Rader, who had heard about EmCell through a business contact, later formed his own company, offering treatments in the Bahamas.
The Bahamian government asked him to leave in 2000 after a New York television station aired a critical report.
Rader, who said his cells come from the former Soviet republic of Georgia, now meets patients one weekend a month in the beachfront city of La Romana in the Dominican Republic. His company, Medra Inc., is based in Malibu.
Some families say he has reduced their children's suffering from brain damage and autism.
He said he has arranged more than 1,000 injections, charging $25,000 for the initial treatment and $8,500 for each follow-up.
"I have literally cured early Alzheimer's," he said.
"I think there is a higher power," Rader said. "I feel that I am just simply a conduit."
Rader, 66, said he has not published anything about his therapy because that would open him to attack from a "conspiracy" of scientists, government authorities, pharmaceutical companies and abortion opponents.