Tuesday, December 19, 2006

International Stem Cell Trade

Last week, the BBC reported the possibility of a baby-murdering ring in the Ukraine.

Disturbing video footage of post-mortem examinations on dismembered tiny bodies raises serious questions about what happened to them. Ukraine has become the self-styled stem cell capital of the world. There is a trade in stem cells from aborted foetuses, amid unproven claims they can help fight many diseases. But now there are claims that stem cells are also being harvested from live babies.

This week, the BBC correspondent who investigated the story provided more detail in the Daily Mail. Ukranian mothers claim that their healthy newborns were taken from them under mysterious circumstances. The reporter, Matthew Hill, first became aware of the story through conversations with a British doctor:

Dr Stephen Minger, from Kings College, London, is a distinguished medical researcher who believes stem cells hold the key to finding a cure for some of our major diseases....

He is one of many reputable experts who fear their research into this field is being given a bad name by companies making a fast buck out of untested stem cell therapies.

Dr Minger told me he found out about the trade in stem cells from aborted Ukrainian foetuses two years ago, when he was invited to meet doctors from a controversial clinic in Barbados. called the Institute For Regenerative Medicine (IRM), the firm wanted Dr Minger to lend his endorsement to its therapies....

The clinic's method of treatment involves injecting patients with stem cells taken from babies aborted between seven and ten weeks old.

It is a technique, says Dr Minger, that has no credible research to back it up, and that raises disturbing questions about how the cells have been 'harvested'.

"The problem is, I am not sure how the cells are prepared," he says. "A six-week-old embryo can be just 1cm from head to foot, so it's difficult to dissect tissue from it. They may just homogenise the whole embryo." That's a polite way of saying that the aborted babies could have been liquidised.

Dr Minger was especially troubled that as well as offering unproven therapy to patients with degenerative diseases - at up to £10,000 a time - the clinic was running a lucrative sideline in offering stem cell treatments to reverse the effects of ageing....

"I find it very distasteful that they are used for beauty treatments," says Dr Minger. "As far as I can tell from what's been published, a lot of people go to this clinic in Barbados feeling a bit run down, or that their skin has just lost some elasticity, and they are getting 'smoothies' or perk-me-ups."

Matthew Hill traveled to Barbardos to investigate the company and its claims. The "proof" that the treatment works was a single case study. Hill asked about how the stem cells were harvested,

How could he be certain the stem cells the clinic was using had indeed come only from aborted foetuses in the Ukraine - a country where there's very little regulation over issues like consent from donors.

Was it possible that the cells had, in fact, been harvested from fullterm babies without any consent from the parents?

Dr Ramesh denied any knowledge of babies being sacrificed for stem cells. He said he had faith in the Institute of Cryobiology in Kharkiv, the source of the stem cells used by the Barbados clinic, but added that "maybe in the future we will go and check it out".

When Hill went to Ukraine to inquire at the Institute of Cryobiology, he received the silent treatment.

Once there, I made several attempts to interview the head of the Institute, Dr Valentin Greshenko, to put my concerns to him, but he refused. So my inquiries took me instead to Maternity Hospital Number Six, which stands in what my translator told me nervously was the "criminal area" of Kharkiv.

Through Maternity Hospital #6, he met two specific women with detailed accounts of how their live, healthy newborns were whisked away from them at birth. He eventually met with the head doctor.

Eventually, I was granted five minutes with the chief doctor, Larysa Nazarenko.

She was visibly uncomfortable as I set up my camera - her eyelids blinking rapidly as she stood behind her desk. "The children are not lost," she told me. "They are not stolen - that's just somebody else's illusion."...

"There is no such (stem cell) therapy," she said. "No work in this hospital is connected with the use of cells. This is the wrong address. I deny everything." Then I was ordered to leave.

The most gruesome, and convincing, part of Hill's investigations were the videos of post-mortem examinations of dead infants. One of the bereaved mothers contacted Tatyana Zhakarova, from the Federation Of Families With Many Children, who agree to investigate.

Tatyana discovered many more infants had died at the hospital in similarly odd circumstances. And after intensive lobbying, the authorities eventually agreed to have the tiny bodies of around 30 babies exhumed and examined.

Tatyana showed me the video she had been allowed to record of the post-mortem examinations that followed. The gruesome film shows the carcasses of babies, some of whom were full-term, with their organs and brains missing. Neurones in infants' brain are a rich source of stem cells.

Another body shown in the video is so badly dismembered it has to be put together piece by piece, like a jigsaw. Dismemberment is not standard autopsy practice and could, according to experts, indicate stem cells were harvested from bone marrow.

Stem cells mean money for somebody, scrupulous or not. Once we accept the idea that it is morally acceptable to use people for the sake of others, people's moral guards will be lowered. Stem cell opponents have warned and predicted that once these genies are out of the bottle, they will be very hard to control. We've gone from using stem cells from discarded aborted babies, to stealing healthy, wanted babies to be killed for their stem cells.

Matthew Hill's investigations were scheduled to be broadcast on BBC radio today.

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