Stem cell therapy gives Katy woman new lease on life
Mikaela Aschoff will soon be jetting off to Cancun but not for some fun in the sun beach vacation. Instead, Aschoff will be checking in to a hospital in the Mexican resort town to continue the stem cell therapy following her 2010 diagnosis for Dysautonomia — an umbrella term used to describe a dysfunction of the nerves that control involuntary bodily functions like heart beat and blood pressure.
It all began in 2010 when Aschoff, now 23, was at a homecoming dance during her freshman year at Seven Lakes High School.
“I was perfectly healthy then I collapsed on the dance floor,” Aschoff said. “It was like an instant thing.”
She was quickly diagnosed with a variety of ailments, including severe fatigue, seizures, migraines, routine loss of consciousness and fibromyalgia among others. Aschoff was confined to a wheelchair and had to be pulled from school. Her life became a steady stream of medical testing and countless medications — all while enduring constant pain.
“My identity became my illness,” Aschoff said.
This went on for about six years. She sought out any treatment, no matter how experimental, that might help give her back some semblance of her life.
“I was certainly willing to be a guinea pig,” Aschoff said.
She reached a turning point while attending a Dysautonomia conference and encountering another young woman who showed little signs she had ever been a patient. She had been on her death bed, Aschoff recalled, was taking 20 medications every day and used a feeding tube for nourishment.
“Now she was up and walking around on her own. She looked great,” Aschoff said.
The woman told Aschoff about her experience with stem cell therapy and a Houston-based biotechnology company called Celltex, which extracts adult mesenchymal stem cells from a patient’s fat tissue then banks the material in their laboratory. The stem cells are later introduced back into the patient’s body.
“It totally gave her her life back,” Aschoff said.
The stem cells will repeatedly divide and form functioning tissue or repair tissue that has been diseased or damaged. Stem cells also help stimulate other cells that are already there.
Aschoff was eager to take part in the therapy and her physicians signed on as well. But, her insurance didn’t cover the $50,000 price tag so her family had to set up a GoFundMe account to help pay for it. The procedure is very labor intensive and takes three to four months to develop a usable set of stem cells, said David Eller, the chief executive officer at Celltex.
“What we’re doing is personalized medicine,” Eller said. “No one is doing it the way we are. We try to improve every year.”
In 2017, Aschoff checked into Hospital Galenia in Cancun where she received several intravenous infusions of the stem cells that had been banked at the Celltex facility in the Houston area. The procedure takes place in Mexico because the Food and Drug Administration has yet to approve it in U.S. hospitals. Eller said they are working with the FDA to eventually change that.
“They recognized that we’re doing the right things. They really want to be able to offer it to other people,” he said. “They can’t without getting the law changed.”
Following the initial treatment, Aschoff woke up in the hospital without pain. The first time she wasn’t plagued in years. She could read a book — an impossibility before because of debilitating migraines and brain fog.
“I was able to get through the day with only taking a few naps rather than ten a day,” Aschoff said.
Within months, Aschoff was getting around without her wheelchair. She later enrolled in an esthetician school but has now decided to get a four year college degree.
“I didn’t get to have a high school experience. This is something I really want to do,” Aschoff said.
She is now majoring in psychology at LeTourneau University in Longview and eventually hopes to treat people who, like her, have been victimized by chronic illnesses.
“Mental health is as important as your physical health,” Aschoff said.
The stem cell treatment is continuing. It’s still somewhat experimental and Aschoff said she doesn’t know if the time will come when she no longer needs to go to the hospital for what is essentially a stem cell booster. She would be willing to continue that treatment indefinitely because of her quality of life these days.
“It’s just great to have my independence. Anytime I want to go and do something, I can,” she said. “I appreciate the small things now.”