The God Cells raises some interesting questions—some by what is said, some by what is not said. The combination of those questions leaves me very torn as to how to approach this documentary. On the one hand, it shares information for a medical treatment that could provide great benefit to people suffering many terrible illnesses. On the other hand, I can’t say it is not an infomercial for snake oil.
The film is a very one-sided look at the medical use of fetal stem cells. (Fetal stem cells are harvested from aborted fetuses, usually at about eight to ten weeks. Obviously their use—even if effective—is very controversial. They differ somewhat from adult stem cells and umbilical cord stem cells (neither of which is controversial), and embryonic stem cells (also controversial because they are harvested from embryos a few days old). The film offers some rudimentary explanation of stem cell treatments and the various short-comings for the other types of stem cells. But most of the film is testimonials by patients who have gone to Mexico for these treatments.
Those testimonials are truly impressive. The term “miracle” does not seem out of place. Among the diseases treated are cystic fibrosis, multiple sclerosis, lymphatic leukemia, lupus, Parkinson’s, and rheumatoid arthritis. (There are other diseases alluded to but these are the main ones we hear about firsthand.) The patients we meet who have had this treatment tell amazing stories of not just stopping the progression of their diseases, but of major improvement—to the point of leading normal and active lives. It should be noted that these patients are all the clients of a single doctor (who the film notes, with a bit of spin applied, has lost his license.)
So the first question raised is why is this treatment not readily available? There is some information on the California Institute of Regenerative Medicine as one of the few places doing research on this kind of stem cells. It also points out the many hoops stem cell treatments face with the FDA before they can be approved. However, there is also a cynical streak to the film that points out that because fetal stem cells wouldn’t be patentable, they represent a cure that would not be profitable for drug companies. I’m not above being cynical about Big Pharma, but I also think there are more issues involved than just that.
One of the biggest questions I had in watching the film is where are all the patients who don’t have miraculous stories to tell? How many people has this doctor treated and what percentage of them have benefited? Are there some who got worse?
The film also does not touch on any of the moral and ethical questions involved in such treatment. There are reasons, some religious, that fetal stem cells are controversial. It could well be argued that the benefits must be considered, but so too should the qualms that many people would have about the practice. And what of the ethics of going across the border to Tijuana to provide a treatment not allowed here, and at a cost of $30,000 (not covered by any insurance) that is only available to those with some means?
It may well be that this is a treatment that deserves to be better understood. The stories we hear are very persuasive. If I were as ill as some of those in the film, I might be hopeless enough to seek out this treatment. But this is still a situation that seems to be very open to the abuse of sick, desperate people. If the film encourages people to seek more inquiry into the treatment by the scientific community, it will be a good thing. If it merely sends people seeking their own miracle to pay their money for their chance (with unknown odds) at a better life, then there are too many questions outstanding.