20 March 2017
ByAppeared in BioNews 893
Directed by Eric Merola
When I first read the title of this documentary – 'The God Cells' directed by multi-award winner Eric Merola – I wondered if I was about to experience 90 minutes of religious debate about the ethical use of fetal-derived stem cells. I was pleasantly surprised to discover that was not the case. Instead, the documentary follows the stories of people who have sought out fetal stem-cell injections as a last resort for their ailments, ranging from chronic lymphocytic leukaemia to neurological conditions such as Parkinson's disease.
That's not to say the ethics were ignored entirely. The first few clips clearly demonstrated the strength of opposing views in the US on a topic which is arguably one of the most divisive in that society – abortion and the right to life – and Merola returns to this issue throughout the rest of the film.
The documentary explores the clinical use of fetal stem-cell therapy and the barriers that currently prevent easy access to this treatment in the US. While there is a proliferation of clinics using a patient's own stem cells (see BioNews 869) the use of fetal stem cells is not licensed by the Food and Drug Administration (FDA). Therefore, many desperate patients travel abroad to places such as Mexico or Ukraine, where fetal stem-cell therapy was first developed 25 years ago. The documentary follows patients and their families on their journeys through firsthand accounts on their lives before, and immediately after, treatment. In each case, traditional treatments had either failed or were not suitable for the patients.
We also hear from the chief executive of the California Institute For Regenerative Medicine, Dr Randal Mills, who explains that the FDA protocol for screening and potentially accepting any fetal stem-cell therapy would span over 12 years and is predicted to cost $1 billion for a single therapy for a single condition.
The FDA comes under not-so-subtle criticism throughout the documentary, and there is the suggestion that this slow process helps protect the profit margins of big pharmaceutical companies (if stem-cell therapies were widely licensed, many prescription medications would be dropped). Each of the patients featured expresses strong disapproval of this, with one father labelling it as 'criminal' that a potentially lifesaving treatment may be blocked for the benefit of big pharma.
These patient accounts were the highlight of the film for me, giving an insight into how these experimental therapies are changing lives. The success stories were astounding, with many patients experiencing a therapeutic benefit as early as three hours after treatment. As a research scientist myself, I would have appreciated interviews with the doctors delivering the treatments, who presumably would have carried out follow-up tests to investigate exactly what biological changes were going on to explain these results. However, as Merola explained, very few doctors were willing to be filmed discussing fetal stem-cell therapy as they feared becoming a target for pro-life lobbyists.
One story in particular made a strong impression on me. It involved a mother who set aside her own beliefs to help her adopted daughter. Janet Goode, whose daughter was treated with fetal stem cells for lupus, said that she 'didn't want [women] to have an abortion, but if [they're] going to anyway, don't waste what could save a life' when interviewed at the start of the documentary. Janet was subsequently diagnosed with lupus herself, and was also treated and apparently cured with fetal stem cells.
Family members of other patients say fetal stem cells are 'God-given material' that was made 'readily available' and shouldn't just be discarded as biological waste from voluntary abortions. I thought that this was an interesting concept – that these cells could be seen as 'gifts from God' – as reflected in title of the documentary.
One aspect of this picture that the producers failed to include were the not-so-successful stories. Each patient in the documentary spoke of being warned that 100 percent recovery, or indeed recovery at all, was not guaranteed. However, none of the chosen cases reported any adverse effects following therapy at all, which made me wonder if the success stories had been cherry-picked for the documentary.
In my opinion, fetal stem-cell therapy has promise for a range of debilitating diseases, but I think it is important to remember and respect the origins of the cells. Merola himself underwent stem-cell therapy at EmCell – the first fetal stem-cell institution in Ukraine – for anti-ageing (or cosmetic) reasons. This did not sit well with me as I believe that if we use these cells for anything other than life-saving treatments we are disrespecting the life from which they originated.
'The God Cells' comes across as uncritical, presenting fetal stem-cell therapy as a 'miracle cure' for limitless conditions, when the evidence was not always substantial enough to support this. Having said that, the team did extremely well to break down the complicated biology of the subject for a non-specialist audience so that anyone can understand the scientific potential behind these cells. My overall impression was that this documentary gave a comprehensive account of the potential for fetal stem-cell therapy, while shedding light on the social and political risks associated with researching, developing and ultimately administering this therapy.