Reporter: Liz Hayes
Producers: Hugh Nailon
, Stephen Rice
Just mention this subject and it's guaranteed to start an argument somewhere. In the parliament, in the churches, in your lounge room. We're talking about embryonic stem cell treatment.
It's either the penicillin of the 21st century, or pure Frankenstein, depending on your point of view.
Scientists hope one day everything from spinal injury to heart disease will be cured by these tiny cells, found in four or five-day-old human embryos.
But it seems some doctors are jumping the gun. One, in particular, is claiming remarkable results from this revolutionary treatment.
Not surprisingly, she's attracting some very desperate people.
LIZ HAYES: On the ancient streets of Delhi, a city more accustomed to mystic healing than 21st century medicine, a Brisbane mother is seeking out a modern-day miracle.
SONYA SMITH: I never liked this chair. And I can never imagine myself being in a wheelchair for the rest of my life. It's just something inconceivable.
LIZ HAYES: Sonya Smith is a paraplegic, crippled in a motor vehicle accident. But she believes here in India, she will walk again.
SONYA SMITH: I'm 45. I can't wait another 10 years or so for the treatment to be able to be available in Australia. I would not have been able to live with myself if I hadn't have tried this.
LIZ HAYES: When you first arrived here and saw this?
SONYA SMITH: 'Oh, what have I got myself into?'
LIZ HAYES: For the past three months, Sonya has been visiting this clinic in the back streets of India's capital, undergoing experimental embryonic stem cell treatment.
SONYA SMITH: This is my pathway to hope, this was the only hope that I've been able to hold on to.
DR GEETA SHROFF: Okay, let me see what you can do.
LIZ HAYES: And this is the woman she believes can help her walk again the highly controversial Dr Geeta Shroff. You don't mind being viewed as someone who is playing with people's lives?
DR GEETA SHROFF: No, I'm not playing with their lives. I'm working on them. I'm trying to help them.
LIZ HAYES: How many patients have you treated?
DR GEETA SHROFF: More than 300.
LIZ HAYES: And has every one of them improved?
DR GEETA SHROFF: I would say almost everybody.
LIZ HAYES: It's a huge claim that's disputed by the world's leading stem cell experts.
DR GEETA SHROFF: All right, you're going to feel something cold, you know that.
LIZ HAYES: And Dr Shroff is not in a rush to share her secrets. She refuses to let anyone see exactly what she does. All we're told is that Sonya's treatment involves injections of stem cells directly into her damaged spinal cord. Do you feel like a guinea pig?
SONYA SMITH: No, I don't.
LIZ HAYES: But you are.
SONYA SMITH: Yes, yes I am, I suppose, and all the other 300 patients that she's treating, we are guinea-pigs.
DR GEETA SHROFF: They are here with me with full consent. They know exactly what I'm doing and they were willing to come in and do this.
LIZ HAYES: But these are vulnerable people, I mean of course they'd be willing it's usually the last stop.
DR GEETA SHROFF: I do not give any guarantees.
LIZ HAYES: You're prepared to take these risks with people's lives?
DR GEETA SHROFF: I am. I've always been an innovator.
LIZ HAYES: And her desperate patients are prepared to take that risk, too. For Sonya, the dream is to dance with her family once again, to be the active and energetic mother her daughters so obviously enjoyed.
SONYA SMITH: To be able to stand up, yes, to walk around the park with my kids, to get back some of the active life that I had beforehand.
LIZ HAYES: You can't blame patients for believing they will walk again. Within weeks, Dr Shroff has them standing but it's little more than a show. None of this is possible without full callipers and a walking frame.
SONYA SMITH: I'm taller than you, Liz.
LIZ HAYES: You are.
SONYA SMITH: To be standing up and doing this is just I can't describe the feeling. I mean, it might look awkward to a lot of people, but it's just absolutely amazing.
LIZ HAYES: What can you feel, Sonya, as you're doing this?
SONYA SMITH: When I put my foot down, I can feel deep sensation in my heel but it's great, it's a wonderful feeling.
LIZ HAYES: You've got a good set of pins as well.
SONYA SMITH: Thank you.
DR GEETA SHROFF: Stem cells is the future. It is definitely going to help a lot of people.
LIZ HAYES: It will be the panacea?
DR GEETA SHROFF: Yes. Like when the discovery of penicillin changed the entire world of infection and today we have antibiotics, which are amazing.
LIZ HAYES: You compare it to that?
DR GEETA SHROFF: I do.
LIZ HAYES: It seems incongruous that from such a dingy back alley comes world groundbreaking medical research. But Dr Shroff can do so because medical protocols here in India are vastly different to those in the Western world. As long as the patient has an incurable disease or permanent disability, it seems just about anything goes.
DR HANS KEIRSTEAD: She's playing with people's lives. Some researchers use rats, others use humans. She's using humans to develop a therapy in a manner that is hardly scientific.
LIZ HAYES: Dr Hans Keirstead is the world's leading stem cell expert. He believes Dr Shroff is exploiting vulnerable people.
DR HANS KEIRSTEAD: There's no doubt in my mind that Dr Shroff is peddling false hope. There's absolutely no doubt in my mind. I think it's an absolute crime to be charging individuals for something that has no scientific backing and that simply plays upon their hope and the enthusiasm in the stem cell field.
LIZ HAYES: While he is scathing about Dr Shroff's treatment, Dr Keirstead says there's no doubting the potential of this new frontier of medical science because he's proven it. In this revolutionary experiment, Dr Keirstead injected paralysed rats with embryonic stem cells and the results were astounding. The cells wrapped themselves around the damaged spinal cord, enabling the messages from the brain to get down to the rats' legs and within six weeks, the rats were walking again. Do you recall the moment when it was like, 'Ah, yes'?
DR HANS KEIRSTEAD: Absolutely. That was the time when I really, really had confidence in what we were doing.
LIZ HAYES: What physical response did you have to that?
DR HANS KEIRSTEAD: I jumped up and down and screamed very loudly.
LIZ HAYES: And now Dr Keirstead is about to take a massive leap forward with the first human trials later this year. That prospect has already sparked a huge moral and ethical debate about scientists playing God.
DR HANS KEIRSTEAD: The fact of the matter is this is not Frankenstein science. This is a tremendous, tremendous gift that the community has been given and we've got the chance to do good with it.
DR GEETA SHROFF: How about when you turn on your side?
LIZ HAYES: But the secretive and questionable methods of people like Dr Shroff aren't helping the cause. Not that she sees any need to explain her treatment.
DR GEETA SHROFF: I do have an ethics committee in my own institution and they govern everything I say.
LIZ HAYES: But nobody's allowed into your laboratory.
DR GEETA SHROFF: No my ethics are people certain people are allowed and they do know what I'm doing.
LIZ HAYES: I guess what I'm saying is, for all we know, maybe apple juice going into this.
DR GEETA SHROFF: Great. If it's apple juice, then investigate it, please. Because it's helping, it's helping people.
SONYA SMITH: This is my 63rd injection since we arrived here.
LIZ HAYES: Now, if you're still thinking what Dr Shroff is doing here might work, you should know this none of her patients receive immunosuppressants or anti-rejection drugs. And, without them, her treatment is not only useless, it could also be harmful.
DR HANS KEIRSTEAD: They are not immunosuppressed which means that, for certain, the patients that receive the cells are rejecting the cells. That is an adverse reaction. And, I think that most researchers in my position in first and second world nations are very, very disturbed at renegade, rogue researchers squirting cells that are unqualified into humans.
LIZ HAYES: Are there any risks involved?
DR GEETA SHROFF: No. We have not seen any side-effects whatsoever.
LIZ HAYES: None?
DR GEETA SHROFF: None.
LIZ HAYES: The patients just keep on coming. Among them, many Australians forking out up to $50,000 for this unproven treatment.
DEBORAH MCCALL: I can't use my hands, my speech, walking is now affected as well. My arms have no strength at all, so ... quite debilitating.
LIZ HAYES: Do you feel like your body is shutting down on you?
DEBORAH MCCALL: Totally. Yep, totally shutting down.
LIZ HAYES: Deborah McCall has motor neurone disease and just 12 months to live. She's flown all the way from Melbourne with daughter Chelsea because Dr Shroff says she can help.
DEBORAH MCCALL: A cure would be wonderful but I'm not also unrealistic either. So I think we're a few years away from that but, I have to start somewhere and someone has to be willing to do it, so I'm more than happy.
LIZ HAYES: How long are you prepared to stay here?
DEBORAH MCCALL: Well, I think now we're looking at two months, yep.
LIZ HAYES: Right now, two months is a big chunk of your life.
DEBORAH MCCALL: It is, yep. But, if it means more time, it's well worth it.
DR GEETA SHROFF: At the end of the day, she knows exactly what she's coming for and then from my side I do not offer any guarantees but I do tell her that I'm going to try. I'm not going to be fooling her or anything like that. I am very honest with her.
LIZ HAYES: You don't offer false hope?
DR GEETA SHROFF: Never. Never. I never offer any false hope to anybody.
LIZ HAYES: After three months of intensive treatment, Sonya has finally returned to Brisbane. Back to her three daughters and husband, Phil. She's still a little fragile but the kids are impressed by what they see. Can you see a difference in your mum?
SONYA'S DAUGHTER: Um, she's a bit more happy because when she wasn't able to kind of move, it was a bit of a struggle for her so it's good to see her being able to do more stuff.
LIZ HAYES: And what do you hope for your mum?
SONYA'S DAUGHTER: Being able to do stuff like cooking dinner.
LIZ HAYES: What are you hoping for, Sonya?
SONYA SMITH: It'll be wonderful to be standing up with the girls, to be able to stand up and play ball with them. Maybe, you know, dance with my husband.
DR JOHN YEO: Hello. I'm John Yeo.
LIZ HAYES: But the big question is has the treatment really worked?
DR JOHN YEO: We need to look at it, we need to talk to you and that's why we've come today, to do that.
SONYA SMITH: I'm happy. I'm happy to do that.
LIZ HAYES: Professor John Yeo is Australia's leading spinal expert. He's agreed to examine Sonya to find out the truth.
DR JOHN YEO: Can you feel me touching you?
SONYA SMITH: No.
DR JOHN YEO: Can you feel me touch you anywhere here or there?
LIZ HAYES: And the verdict? Well, there's been a slight improvement in Sonya's muscle tone but still no feeling and absolutely no evidence that the stem cell treatment has worked.
DR JOHN YEO: At the moment, it's recovery of a limited sort that could have come through intensive physiotherapy but we haven't proven anything.
LIZ HAYES: Would you be happy to send a patient to Dr Shroff?
DR JOHN YEO: At present, no.
LIZ HAYES: To the mainstream medical world, Dr Geeta Shroff is a charlatan. Yet, despite all the controversy, all the doubts about her treatment, her business is booming. In the next few months, Sonya is returning to India for a second round of treatment. And there is little doubt that many more will follow.
SONYA SMITH: I'm smiling again. I'm putting make-up on again, I'm doing my hair, I'm just feeling so much happier in myself. There's hope and that is a really big thing that we all need, is hope.