Dad with multiple sclerosis who fought for treatment in Panama during Covid restrictions finds first round is ‘reaping rewards’

A former junior motorsport racer with multiple sclerosis who battled against the odds to receive experimental stem cell treatment in Panama in April is already noticing improvements in his condition. 

Alister Bailey, 39, a former Barnes resident, travelled to the Stem Cell Institute with his wife Gemma, despite warnings they would not be let in to Panama due to coronavirus travel restrictions.

MS is an autoimmune disease that can affect the brain and spinal cord. Common symptoms include mobility problems, vision problems, muscle spasms, fatigue and speech difficulties.

Before Panama, Alister couldn’t hold a cup of tea, but now his hands have stopped shaking and he can pour a drink without spilling it. He has also noticed an improvement in his eyesight. 

Gemma said: “This might seem trivial but it’s a huge physical change. That’s a really positive sign and certainly encouraging for us in terms of the next round.

THUMBS UP: Alister and his wife Gemma before their flight to Mexico

“We have seen some positive signs already which is amazing because we didn’t really have any expectations this time round to be honest; it was more to stop the deterioration.

“He really believes it will work and he feels something is happening.”

The Baileys are currently fundraising to get Alister back to Panama for a second round of treatment in November. 

The pair were supposed to fly out to Panama for the first round in January after raising £22,500, but coronavirus put a stop to those plans.

Travel restrictions meant they had to delay the trip until the end of April – but, even then, it was not an easy ride. 

Read below about their rollercoaster journey: 

Alister and Gemma’s journey to Panama

The pair opted for experimental mesenchymal stem cell therapy because treatment options for progressive MS are limited. 

A year after he married Gemma, Alister started experiencing episodes where he wasn’t able to walk and then he went blind for two days in 2012.

Since receiving his diagnosis, Alister has been on a drug for ten years to slow symptom progression. But Gemma said his condition has rapidly deteriorated in the past three years. While he does not use a wheelchair at home, he cannot walk any long distance unsupported. 

She said: “There’s no cure for progressive MS so this treatment in Panama is his only hope.

“Alister didn’t qualify for anything on the NHS which was pretty disheartening.

“We have various doctor friends, some of them researching stem cell treatments for different illnesses but they said this is where medicine is going in the future.”

The Stem Cell Institute administers mesenchymal stem cells (MSCs) which are recovered from donated umbilical cords and grown in labs. 

MSCs are adult cells which can produce other cells like muscle. This is why researchers are interested in testing whether they can protect nerves from more damage and repair the original damage. 

What’s next?

The Baileys are hoping to see the best benefits of the treatment after two or three rounds and have prepared themselves for potentially five visits. 

They have planned fundraising events to get together the funds needed for November. 

On 17 July, Alister’s 67-year-old dad Chris took on the Surrey Hills Epic Off-Road Challenge which involves 125km of off-road mountain biking.

CHEERS: Alister’s dad Chris and friend Gary celebrate finishing the challenge with Alister and his son Ronnie

Gemma is organising a charity dinner and her friend Claire is running the Lulworth Cove Trail Challenge which involves running along the coastline.

Their friend Jonny Wright has already raised $14,400 as he prepares to cycle 2,500 miles from Maine to Florida in 30 days starting on 27 August.

Their hope is that the treatment will stimulate repair of the damaged tissues so that Alister can play football with his son again.

You can follow the family’s journey on their Instagram page.

You can donate to their fundraiser here

Credit for all photos: Gemma and Alister Bailey.

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