PJ Media

The Pro-Life Case for Stem Cell Treatment

A significant percentage of America’s 45.6 million dog owners and 38.2 million cat owners have first-hand familiarity with state-of-the-art medical facilities for pets that rival the most sophisticated human hospitals: animal emergency centers where veterinary specialists — including neurologists, orthopedists, oncologists, and criticalists — prolong the lives of pets whose owners can afford the service. The mainstream media rarely misses a chance to point out that animal medical care in the United States is almost on par with the best in human health care. But the reality is that the level of animal medical innovation has actually surpassed that of human medicine — and mainstream media bias is partly to blame.

In 2007, my dog Sam — then 14 years old and suffering stiffness in his limbs from advanced osteoarthritis to the point that he was collapsing on the street — was deemed eligible for a procedure in which his own (autologous) stem cells would be harvested from his own fat, then injected into his weak knees to help the joints rejuvenate themselves. A sample of fatty tissue was surgically removed from Sam’s abdomen under anesthesia and FedEx’d on ice to Vet-Stem in San Diego, the leader in stem cell medicine for animals. Two days later, Sam’s cells were overnighted in vials back to the vet hospital, on ice, ready to be injected into his tired, old joints.

Just hours after the injection, Sam was able to stand and walk without falling down; within a few months, he was no longer 14 years old; he was 14 years young, with all the energy of his 10-year-old self. Vet-Stem had effectively “Benjamin Buttoned” my beloved dog. Duly impressed, I wanted to know: could my husband, say, get the same treatment for his knees? The answer, I would learn, is no — at least, not in the United States, because FDA approval of stem cell clinical trials is on indefinite hold. Still, it’s a question Dr. Bob Harman, Vet-Stem’s founder, hears all the time:

Vet-Stem has received hundreds of comments in the past few years from dog owners lamenting that they cannot get the same treatment that their pets are getting. They also ask frequently for recommendations of where to go to get treated overseas. After Nightline did a story on Vet-Stem, many of the comments on the ABC Web site were from people who were frustrated that pets could get stem cells and they could not. I believe our data are helping people understand that adult stem cells from fat tissue really work. Our client veterinarians have treated over 6,000 animal patients with great success and great safety.

That’s no small figure, and it’s the more impressive considering the many similarities between dog DNA and human DNA. My dog’s positive outcome — the procedure bought Sam three years of quality life; he never collapsed again, and died this year at 17 of complications from advanced age —  motivated me to ask Vet-Stem for the overseas treatment recommendation, just in case it should ever be needed. It turned out to be the Institute of Cellular Medicine, a state-of-the-art clinic run by American scientist-entrepreneur Neil Riordan, founder of Arizona’s Medistem, with headquarters in Costa Rica and Panama City. Since 2006, some 400 patients, most of them Americans, have been treated at Riordan’s clinic for arthritis, multiple sclerosis, muscular dystrophy, and spinal injuries. The Institute does not use embryonic stem cells; instead, it uses only adult (autologous) cells from patients’ own fat and bone marrow, and donated umbilical cord blood.

But on June 2 of this year, Reuters — the news agency with a reputation for displaying bias in its controversial cropping of photographs — broke the “news” that the Institute of Cellular Medicine had been ordered by the government of Costa Rica to stop offering treatment because “there is no proof that it is effective,” and that the clinic was closing its doors. Except that’s not what happened: The choice to close on June 4 was made by Riordan; he was not “ordered” to shut down, he was consolidating his practice at the Panama City location, the Stem Cell Institute, which had just undergone reconstruction. Says Riordan:

Two spinal cord injury patients were treated at the Cima Hospital in Costa Rica by doctors from the Institute of Cellular Medicine; after one of them was featured on a local news channel, Costa Rica’s Minister of Health sent a letter to Cima Hospital telling them to stop doing “experimental stem cell treatments.” The hospital and Institute both contend that the treatments were administered under informed consent and not experimental. … Because of the position of the Minister of Health, and the fact that the parent company in Panama had just completed its new laboratory with increased capacity, the company closed its facility in Costa Rica.

Maria Luisa Avila, Costa Rica’s health minister, was quoted by Reuters as saying, “This isn’t allowed in any serious country in the world.”Reuters printed her opinion without a rebuttal.

But Avila’s statement is not accurate, unless she considers Spain to be a less-than-serious country; in August 2009, almost a year ago, the Stem Cell Unit of Madrid’s La Paz University Hospital had already completed a clinical trial using adipose-derived adult stem cells on recruited patients.

And in late April, just five weeks before the closing of the Costa Rica clinic, the Vatican — which opposes embryonic stem-cell research for the obvious reason that it involves the destruction of human fetuses — announced its strong support of a new international project for adult stem-cell research. The project is led by the University of Maryland School of Medicine in Baltimore, which established a consortium of researchers from several Italian health institutes, including the Vatican-owned Bambino Gesu Hospital in Rome.

Perhaps Costa Rica’s health minister does not consider the United States or Italy to be “serious” countries? Perhaps Reuters doesn’t either, as no mention of this was made in its reporting. What’s more, despite the Vatican’s condemnation of embryonic stem cells getting plenty of Reuters coverage, the Vatican’s approval of adult stem cells didn’t merit Reuters’ attention.

As for proof, albeit anecdotal, of the Institute’s treatments’ effectiveness, conspicuously absent from the Reuters article of June 2 and its June 7 followup story was the curious case of Juan Carlos Murillo, 30, one of Riordan’s satisfied customers. A commercial pilot, Murillo had been confined to a wheelchair, paralyzed from the waist down in a 2008 airplane crash. Today, after several treatments with adult stem cells harvested from donated umbilical cord blood, Murillo can walk without assistance. He was evaluated by a neurologist at the University of Miami; in spinal cord injury cases, spontaneous neurological restoration rarely happens, and spontaneous restoration of bladder/bowel/erectile function virtually never happens. In Murillo’s case, all of the above happened. He looks forward to passing his flight physical and resuming his career as a commercial pilot later this month.

And yet, the doctors providing the treatment that makes such a life-changing reversal possible are dismissed by the media, while their patients are characterized as “tourists.” Reuters notes that “the International Society of Stem Cell Research has cautioned against so-called stem cell tourism,” and quotes Dr. David Scadden, co-director of the Harvard Stem Cell Institute:

When these kinds of treatments are proposed, they’re being essentially marketed by virtue of the anecdotal report. I feel the danger of exploitation is extremely high.

OK, so Murillo’s story is anecdotal. But had Reuters done its fact-checking, it would have discovered that ISSCR is hardly an unbiased source to be asking about adult stem cells; its physician-entrepreneur president is a proponent of embryonic cells. Riordan has been a member of the ISSCR since 2006, but boycotted the group’s meeting in San Francisco last month, saying his decision was made based on ISSCR’s record of supporting the use of stem cells from dead fetuses and embryos, while purposely ignoring advances performed in the area of adult stem cells. Riordan had been recently notified by mail that his membership in the ISSCR is “under review”; the letter was signed by ISSCR’s president, Dr. Irv Weissman. According to Riordan:

Despite Irv’s impressive history of immunological and basic science breakthroughs, he has created a terrible public impression that the only type of stem cell research worth funding is the one that involves destruction of life. I believe Irv’s leadership is a disservice to ISSCR and until he is replaced I and Medistem will steer clear of this organization. I disagree with the current opinion being propagated that embryonic and fetal stem cells, both of which destroy life, are a viable area for clinical research. Medistem’s opposition to fetal and embryonic stem cells derives not only from ethical considerations but is also based on evidence of tumor formation, which has already been reported in the peer reviewed clinical literature.

In a fine example of media bias, the MSM is queasy about reporting on non-embryonic stem cells that are pro-life, as if to do so would blur a church-state line by promoting a medical therapy approved by religious entities and individuals. In the MSM, embryonic stem cells come across as sexy; adult stem cells do not. Embryonic stem cells have had charismatic supporters, including President Obama and the late Christopher Reeve. The MSM loves to talk about embryonic cells’ “pluripotency” (their ability to morph into any type of cell in the body). As a result, adult stem cells are perceived as less cutting-edge.

But adult stem cells aren’t just ethically correct; they are proven more effective and less risky than embryonic cells, which replicate indefinitely (not unlike cancer cells). There’s a wide generation gap between adult tissue and embryonic cells, as Dr. Fabio Solano, Riordan’s colleague in Costa Rica, explains: “Adult stem cells play a natural role in repair of damaged tissue in the adult; in contrast, fetal stem cells do not properly ‘know’ how to communicate with adult tissue.” Plus, when harvested from the patient’s own fat, adult stem cells carry no risk of rejection. Adds Riordan:

There has been so much hype over embryonic stem cells. To my knowledge, embryonic stem cells have never helped a single individual. Thousands of people each year are helped with adult stem cells. I think adult stem cells are the future of medicine. And in some indications the future is now.

Since the Costa Rica clinic closed, doctors have seen several patients at Riordan’s other location, the Stem Cell Institute in Panama City. One of the patients there happens to be Texan Sam Harrell, 54, renowned football coach of the Ennis High School Lions. Harrell was diagnosed with multiple sclerosis in 2005; for the last three years, he’s been coaching from a golf cart provided by the school, but his symptoms have progressed, he says, “to the point that I had determined this coming year I wasn’t going to be able to do it any more — I was going to have to retire from coaching.”

Harrell is proof that pro-life doesn’t have to mean anti-science. After seeing videotaped testimonials from Riordan’s clients on YouTube, Harrell became something of a medical evangelist, spreading the word about adult stem cells in his very observant Christian community — which, like many communities, had assumed that all stem cells are embryonic simply because those cells get so much more press. The initial response of Harrell’s friends, neighbors, and fellow worshipers at the Creekside Church of Christ was disgust; but after he got done making the distinction between adult and embryonic stem cells, his community responded by raising the funds needed for their coach to be treated at Riordan’s Institute. Says Harrell:

Just the mention of stem cells, and people look at you like, Aren’t we in America against that? I explain to them that this isn’t embryonic stem cells, they’re just going to take cells from my fat tissue, and nobody knew that [option] was out there. It’s just a lack of education. I’m taking the treatment now, and I’m hoping to coach again. I’m really looking forward to getting back to Texas and being a voice for adult stem cells. I think it’s the future of medicine. It’s just amazing to me how many people back in the States are so negative about it, and yet there are so many good things coming from it.

Harrell’s circle of supporters has a definite interest in helping him overcome MS; he’s coached some very talented athletes, including his own son, Graham Harrell, who now plays for the Green Bay Packers. Keeping him on the field coaching young players ensures that the school’s team stays on the athletic map. But all Americans should care about getting adult stem cells on the fast track for FDA approval. Doctors who use adult cells are not charlatans or faith healers; they are medical crusaders.

Let us pray that the MSM can drop its bias, so more Americans with no other treatment options can learn about adult stem cells and reap the health benefits, right here at home — as our pets already can.