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.