Gordie Howe Was Treated With Cells From an Aborted Baby, Not “Adult” Stem Cells

Bioethics   |   Rebecca Taylor   |   Jun 22, 2015   |   9:40AM   |   Washington, DC

Hockey legend Gordie Howe was in the headlines this year for his remarkable recovery from a stroke after a stem cell treatment in Tijuana, Mexico. Initially the reports indicated that Howe was treated with “adult” stem cells, and so the implication was that his treatment was non-controversial. But Brent Schrotenboer, of USA Today, reported last month that Howe’s treatment included stem cells derived from an aborted fetus.

Stemedica, a San Diego company that provides the stem cell treatment to clinics like the one in Mexico, combines two types of stem cells — meshenchymal stem cells from an adult donor and neural stem cells from a 14 to 16 week old aborted fetus. Stemedica claims that fetal stem cells are “adult” stem cells because they behave more like true adult stem cells than embryonic stem cells.

USA Today reports:

The company, Stemedica Cell Technologies of San Diego, says calling them “adult” stem cells is scientifically correct because they are considered more mature stem cells with a specialized function, as opposed to embryonic stem cells, which are more akin to “blank slate” cells that are considered riskier and more likely to cause tumors….

“We don’t use the word fetal too much,” said Maynard Howe, Stemedica’s CEO, who is no relation to Gordie Howe. “We just don’t want to get people confused about what it is. They’re really considered legally adult stem cells even if they’re fetal-derived.”

Unfortunately, this is not new. Scientists and companies like Stemedica often call stem cells that come from aborted fetuses “adult” stem cells simply because they did not come from an embryo.

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Stemedica’s silence on where they got their stem cells has caused great confusion. Confusion they are not eager to correct:

Yet Stemedica’s choice of terms not only failed to avoid public confusion, it added to it. Once Gordie Howe’s treatments became public, several media reports noted he had received “adult” stem cells, with no mention that Stemedica’s original source of the cells was a fetus with a gestation age of 14 to 16 weeks.

In January, ESPN2 talk show host Keith Olbermann prefaced a television interview with Maynard Howe by telling him he wanted “to preclude people going off any stem cell controversy.” Olbermann then told viewers what he thought to be true.

“Your firm uses the stem cells that are donated by adult volunteers,” Olbermann declared.

Maynard Howe didn’t correct him.

There are other medical professionals who think that the public should know if stem cell treatments come from aborted fetuses. The Detroit News reached out to the Mayo College of Medicine on the subject:

“Scientifically they are (adult cells), but the source is controversial,” said Jennifer McCormick, assistant professor of biomedical ethics at the Mayo College of Medicine in Rochester, Minnesota. She noted they can also be called “somatic” stem cells.

“If you’re using fetal stem cells, then you should accurately describe them as fetal stem cells.”

The Detroit News also reported that one man contacted Stemedica to see if his mother could receive the same treatment as Gordie Howe. Howe got his treatment for free. Bill Van Horn was told that it would cost his mother $32,000. Van Horn was unaware that the stem cells came from an aborted fetus and said he probably would not have asked about their source:

Stemedica didn’t mention that some cells his mother would receive were grown from fetal brain tissue, and Van Horn admits he didn’t ask. He was preoccupied about his mother’s condition and then dissuaded after learning that the treatments — which Howe received at no charge — would cost a prohibitive $32,000.

“I’m not really up on medical ethics so I’m not 100 percent sure that I would have asked, (but) it would have concerned me if I knew it was fetal cells,” Van Horn said. “My interest in my mother’s health probably would have outweighed my concern about that, (but) if they had volunteered that, I would have at least (tried) to find out more about it.”

It is critically important that the origins of stem cell treatments be made clear to patients. It is not good enough for companies like Stemedica to hide behind technicalities when many people would refuse treatment if they knew it was derived from an abortion. In the past, I have argued for labeling on products where cells from aborted fetuses were used in either the production or development so that we consumers could know about what unethical practices went into making what we buy or treatments we receive.

Children of God for Life, has proposed legislation that would do just that. It is called the The Fair Labeling and Informed Consent Act. It would, among other things:

“require the manufacturers and distributors to provide information if the development or manufacture of their product uses aborted fetal material in any form including but not limited to cells, cell lines, tissues, DNA, recombinant DNA, monoclonal antibodies, blood, proteins or components thereof, in manufacturing or development.”

This legislation is exactly what is needed for Americans to be informed consumers and patients.

Unfortunately, if the silence about the use of cell lines in medicine that originated with an elective abortion continues, their use will only expand. As the use of fetal stem cells expands, many Americans may be unaware that their “life-saving” treatment was made possible by the ending of the life of an innocent baby in abortion.