Stem cell research benefits Houston woman with multiple sclerosis

HOUSTON – It's a debate that puts many people's religious beliefs at odds with science.

Medical breakthroughs have allowed doctors to use human stem cells to treat chronic diseases with incredible results, but even patients who benefit have reservations about how stem cells are harvested.

Multiple sclerosis is a debilitating, progressive disease that typically only gets worse once a patient is diagnosed. But much to the surprise of many doctors, patient Debbie Bertrand's symptoms have improved instead of regressing.

"The last time I walked into this building, I had to use the wheelchair," Bertrand said. "I couldn't even walk, so this is a big day for me."

Bertrand uses a walker to visit Celltex -- a Houston company that has been preserving her stem cells since 2011. She was one of the first patients to receive breakthrough treatments using stem cells taken from fat cells, which are then reinjected into her body.

"I had pretty high expectations, but I think they've exceeded anything I could've ever hoped for," Bertrand said. "My doctors are still blown away because you're never supposed to get better when you have MS. But my quality of life is just so much better."

Bertrand's experience is not unique. The company said stem cell injections have helped people with joint diseases and Parkinson's.

CEO David Eller said he was healed of knee pain.

"We're happy that it's working and we're happy for people like Debbie Bertrand," Eller said. "A lot of people don't have the time to wait 10 years and find out if it's going to be legal or not."

There is still a lot of debate over the morality of embryonic stem cell use. Embryonic stem cells are derived from remaining human embryos, not used in IVF treatments.

Harvesting the stem cells ends with the destruction of those embryos, that's something Bertrand said she didn't want.

"That was really important to me too," she said. "They were going to use my own stem cells and not embryonic stem cells. But these were going to be own stem cells used to heal my body."

The study of stem cells is legal, but not the actual injection. Celltex can draw stem cells, study and store them.

Storage tanks with temperatures of -300 degrees can hold up to 600 client's stem cells. The cells are then shipped to Mexico where the injections take place. Bertrand leaves next month.

"The FDA has shut it down for right now, but hopefully in the near future they'll see the positive things that are coming from all of this," Bertrand said. "They'll open it back up so we can have it in Houston again."

For now, the Food and Drug Administration views stem cells as a drug and the treatments using them have not been approved.