Lorraine McCallum spoke at the deVeber Institute for Bioethics and Social Research's Café Scientifique. Photo by Vanessa Santilli

Ethics of stem cell treatment debated in Toronto

  • July 5, 2012

TORONTO - Lorraine McCallum was diagnosed with multiple myeloma, a blood cancer of the plasma cells in the bone marrow, just days after the birth of her third daughter in 2009.

A stem cell recipient, McCallum shared the story of using her own stem cells for treatment at the deVeber Institute for Bioethics and Social Research's Café Scientifique, exploring the realities and ethical questions raised by stem cell research. The event was sponsored by the Canadian Institutes of Health Research.

"I'm not entirely sure why it works, but it does," she told the audience of about 100 gathered at Toronto's Fox and Fiddle pub July 3. "With multiple myeloma, they don't really know where it starts in the body or what triggers it but stem cell transplants are standard  treatment… and it is effective at least for a while in holding the cancer at bay."

Before doctors could go ahead with the stem cell transplant, the cancer had to be brought down to a very low level, said McCallum, who underwent radiation, chemotherapy and spinal surgery beforehand.

"I was given a drug to hyper-stimulate the production of stem cells in my body and then those were filtered out of my blood," she said.

"They gave me a drug that essentially destroyed my existing stem cells and bone marrow so my immune system was decimated and then my old stem  cells were re-introduced back into my system."

Much of the controversy around embryonic stem cells revolves around the belief that an embryo is a living human being and destroying an embryo for any reason is morally unacceptable. These embryos often come from in vitro fertilization clinics.

Scientists have found that a few stem cells persist after birth: adult stem cells.

One of their major benefits are that if the stem cells come from your own body, your immune system will probably not try to reject them, as was the case with McCallum, said Dr. Michael Fehlings, a neuroscience expert. However, adult stem cells aren't able to form all types of cells, so their use may be limited.

Speaker Dr. David Hill, who is interested in using stem cells to treat diabetes, said it would be unethical not to exploit their potential.

"It's a very attractive technology for the treatment of chronic diseases," said Hill. "We have very few treatments that actually have the potential to reverse chronic diseases. The best we can do is  manage them. Stem cells offer that potential."

But Fehlings said the sad reality is that for brain and spinal cord injuries there is no medically accepted form of stem cell treatment.

"This emphasizes the critical need for research in this area," he said.

One of the challenges he faces is trying to separate the hope vs. the hype, he said.

"Neural stem cells have the real potential to treat, ameliorate and even potentially cure some of the most devastating brain and spinal cord conditions."

But stem cell treatment comes with a high price tag, which is going to cause problems in Canada for a publicly funded health care system that predates such technological advancements, he added.

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