For as long as she can remember, Isabella Lombardo has had one simple dream – to walk on her own.
Isabella is unlucky enough to be that one in 500 babies born in Australia who suffer the debilitating neurological condition known as Cerebral Palsy.It took doctors two years to diagnose it properly and ever since then, her parents have been determined to somehow stop its cruel effect of twisting and tightening her little body.
As she has grown, the problem has become even more acute and her dream of independence - to walk and skip and run, just like all the other kids down at the local park – seems to grow more distant.
For her mum and dad, Libby and Joseph, the clock has long been ticking on finding a possible cure before her development prevented any reversal and extinguished all hope of making her dream come true.
In desperation they have virtually spent their life savings on a medical procedure that Australian doctors are prohibited from performing. On 60 Minutes, Liam Bartlett joined the Lombardo family as six-year-old Isabella travelled to Mexico to receive what the clinicians there describe as ground-breaking stem cell therapy. And to even the most hardened observer, the preliminary results look remarkable.
Until their trip to Mexico, simple Botox injections were the only treatment officially available to Isabella in Australia and although it is some help in loosening her muscles and partially easing her pain, it is at best, only a temporary relief.
Unable to accept there was nothing they could do to help their little girl, in 2016 Libby and Joseph took Isabella to America for selective dorsal rhizotomy or SDR. It's a spinal surgery, designed to set Isabella up for her stem-cell therapy and allow her body to regain some control over motor functions. This was the first time the Lombardos heard Australian doctors telling them it wouldn’t work.
"You've got not one doctor here in Australia saying I think this might be a good idea?" Bartlett asked the parents."No, not one," replied Libby. That operation was successful though and saw her gain much needed strength and extra movement and prepared the way for the even more radical stem-cell procedure.Their research had identified doctors in Mexico who seemed to be making progress with cutting edge treatment stem cell therapy. But again Australian doctors were sceptical.
"We saw a professor heading up some stem cell treatment here in Australia and he was very, what should I say, against it," said Libby.
"He advised us to not participate in anything like that."
The University of Queensland’s Professor Ernst Wolvetang is the leading stem cell specialist in Australia who advised against the Mexican procedure. He told 60 Minutes more comprehensive medical trials are needed to prove that the treatment is actually effective and is safe for the patient, long-term.
"Mexico is not doing proper clinical trials, so none of that work has ever been published. It's anecdotal evidence,” said Wolvetang."Now, I'm not saying that it doesn't work, but we don't know if it works or not, unless there is proper oversight and unless those[sic] data are published and scrutinised."
But the Lombardo’s had been researching possible treatmens and advances in medical science for their little girl for years.
Isabella's dad, Joseph has spent countless hours on the internet, digging into medical papers, published studies and anything else he can get his hands on. So despite the warnings, comforted by their own knowledge and armed with hearts full of optimism, they packed their bags and jumped on a flight to South America.
"The alternative is that you sit back and you wait until these treatments are available in Australia," said Joseph.
"And that can be 10 or 20 years - by which time it’s too late."As Liam Bartlett revealed, Mexico is possibly the last place you’d expect to find ground-breaking treatment for cerebral palsy sufferers.
But incredibly, eight million people are travelling to Mexico every year for medical tourism to undergo a range of procedures that medical authorities in other parts of the world will not carry out.
Isabella's stem cell treatment was performed by the BIOSS clinic in the third largest city of Monterrey.
For seven years BIOSS CEO Dr Anna Carolina claims she and her team have achieved amazing improvements in patients from all over the globe and not just with cerebral palsy but autism, diabetes and stroke as well.
"We are having patients that… they cannot stand up or even sit and they are now achieving that kind of goal," she told Bartlett. Dr Carolina can't fathom why a simple, and in her eyes proven treatment, is currently prohibited in Australia.
Interestingly, Prof. Wolvetang is especially sceptical of clinics who offer stem-cell cures for a variety of illnesses and conditions, dressing up the treatment as if it is a one-stop miracle cure.
For Isabella though, only a few weeks after her treatment, the rate of improvement was nothing short of amazing, even to the untrained eye. Following the procedure she left for Texas, for a month of intensive physiotherapy with world-renowned cerebral palsy therapist Mike Poole.
Full of confidence, balancing alone without aid, Isabella took her first independent steps.Understandably, her parents are elated and remain hopeful that the pace of change will keep heading in the right direction, no matter what that looks like.
"Walking isn't necessarily the end game," said Joseph. "Walking is great but independence - everybody wants the pride and enjoyment of being independent, that’s one of the big things we’re trying for."
"To have a better life."