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Stemedica Cell Technologies and Moral Objections to 'Adult' Stem Cells

Contact: Jennifer Kimball Watson, Culture of Life Foundation, 202-270-2772

WASHINGTON, May 28, 2015 /Christian Newswire/ -- The San Diego-based biotech company, Stemedica Cell Technologies, recently received attention for providing the "adult" neural stem cells that treated two sports heroes, hockey legend Gordie Howe and football MVP John Brodie.  The company on its website proclaims its competence in the flourishing field of adult stem cell research, which has lead some to conclude that Stemedica is only involved in research untainted by the destruction of human life.

But USA Today recently broke a story showing that the so-called "adult" stem cells provided to the two sports heroes were derived from the harvested brain tissue of a fetus aborted at 14-16 weeks gestational age.

We know that to some in the scientific community, stem cells from the body of a fetus at 14 weeks are referred to as "adult" in that they originate from tissues that are more or less differentiated, meaning the cells no longer have the potency to develop into other types of cells.  But in the minds of most people, and those of us who have followed closely or academically engaged in the stem cell debate over the years, the "adult" terminology implies that the stem cells are derived in morally unobjectionable ways.  Science has, until recently, referred to stem cells as "embryonic," "prenatal," "postnatal" and "adult;" nomenclature significant to the source of the cells and not the cell type.  The cells cultured by Stemedica and used by athletes Howe and Brodie, would more accurately be referred to as "prenatal differentiated neural cells." Once a stem cell has become differentiated, it is no longer a stem cell.

When Stemedica's CEO, Maynard A. Howe, was confronted with the possible confusion, he said, "We don't use the word fetal too much.  We just don't want to get people confused about what it is."  But his company's failure to frankly reveal the tainted origins of the neural stem cells has led to considerable confusion, especially among those who believed that Stemedica was engaged in unobjectionable stem cell research.  Indeed, it has led some to suspect that Stemedica was deliberately hiding the controversial information in order to avoid controversy.  This suspicion is confirmed by the fact that when an ESPN talk show host interviewing Howe last January said to the Stemedica CEO, "Your firm uses the stem cells that are donated by adult volunteers," Howe did not correct him.  We would like to ask Mr. Howe, in what sense an aborted fetus is an "adult volunteer?"

In a memo released by Stemedica in response to the controversy, one of the "talking points" reads: "[According to the Catholic Church], if it is a question of protecting the whole population and avoiding death and malformation in others that is more important than abstaining from vaccines developed from fetal tissue sources."  The statement was apparently made by Msgr. Jacques Suaudeau, member of the Pontifical Academy for Life (PAL).  Two things about this statement should be noted.  First, individual members of the PAL do not speak authoritatively on behalf of the Catholic Church.  Second, the talking point actually misrepresents the position of the PAL.  Suaudeau's comments draw upon a PAL text published in 2005 entitled "Moral Reflections On Vaccines Prepared from Cells Derived from Aborted Human Foetuses."  Presuming we may apply its ethical analysis to the area of stem cell preparation and marketing, we see that the text does not sanction the behavior Stemedica suggests; the text actually states clearly that "the preparation, distribution and marketing of vaccines [in this case, stem cell therapies] produced as a result of the use of biological material whose origin is connected with cells coming from foetuses voluntarily aborted, such a process is stated, as a matter of principle, morally illicit, because it could contribute in encouraging the performance of other voluntary abortions, with the purpose of the production of such vaccines."

The only grounds for permissibility mentioned in the document was for the "use" of the vaccines, and then only by children whose parents reasonably believe that a decision not to vaccinate would expose the children or the wider community to "considerable dangers to their health."  In such an instance, the text says, vaccines may "be used on a temporary basis," presuming the parents fulfill "the moral duty to continue to fight and to employ every lawful means in order to make life difficult for the pharmaceutical industries which act unscrupulously and unethically."  And to rule out any possible misunderstanding of its meaning, the text adds: "[this limited example of] the lawfulness of the use of these vaccines should not be misinterpreted as a declaration of the lawfulness of their production, marketing and use."  So the PAL document does not sanction Stemedica's manipulation of brain tissue from aborted fetuses; and its "talking points" are flatly misleading.

The field of stem cell research has suffered from the unscrupulous practices of scientists willing to falsify data and biotech professionals willing to hype cures that don't exist.  Into this unsavory bunch, it seems we can include the dissimulating practices of the management team of Stemedica Cell Technologies.