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June 07 2007 - Girl with cerebral palsy flies to China for untested treatment

An eight-year-old British girl flew to China with her parents yesterday for an experimental treatment for cerebral palsy.

Vaishnavi Tahiliani, known as Shonia, is to have stem cells injected into her spinal cord at the Tiantan Puhua Neurosurgical Hospital in Beijing which claimed a breakthrough in the treatment last month.

Her family have raised £18,000 for the controversial treatment, not yet available in the UK, helped by the Hermitage Hotel in Bournemouth, where they live. Kishor Tahiliani, 34, and his wife, Priti, were encouraged by the hospital's claim to have already helped 19-year-old Gabor Bocskai, from Hungary, to walk, sit up, swim, concentrate for longer, see better and speak.

But Scope, the cerebral palsy charity, warned the two-month treatment, involving four injections, was untested and not backed by scientific evidence.

Mr Tahiliani, who works in hotel management, said: "This is the best treatment for her. There are cerebral palsy children who were totally blind and now they can see, that's in Mexico. My wife spoke to an American woman. They were crying on the phone - her child is able to do what a normal child does. There are so many children who have improved. It's amazing really."

Cerebral palsy is caused by brain damage resulting from a lack of oxygen to the brain at birth. The brain sends the wrong signals to muscles causing spasticity and other problems.

Neurologists say the damage is irreversible and the most that treatment can achieve is improved muscle function, through physiotherapy or by the use of drugs including Botox, the anti-wrinkle treatment.

But doctors in China claim they have found a way of using stem cells, from the umbilical cords of healthy babies, which develop into new nerve cells, to repair some of the damage.

The Tiantan Puhua hospital announced the treatment breakthrough on 6 May. Unedited videos taken before and after Gabor Bocskai's injections demonstrated the profound improvement in his battle to walk, write, focus his eyes, and concentrate, it claimed.

Richard Parnell, head of research at Scope, said: "There is a lot of work on stem cells which is exciting. But when we hear children are being sent out to China and there is no evidence base, as a responsible organisation, we have to be very careful.

"Does this one case provide enough evidence and has it been peer reviewed? We have to be wary of the 'Pygmalion' effect - if you surround someone with the right stimulus and environment they may feel they have improved."

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