Film Review: The God Cells

Documentary about chronically ill people who have received fetal stem-cell treatments to great success isn't particularly balanced, but its argument is supremely reasonable, and it puts heartbreaking faces of very human people into the debate.
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An advocacy documentary pushing fetal stem-cell research and treatment, filmmaker Eric Merola's The God Cells follows his 2010 and 2013 Burzynski: Cancer Is Serious Business parts one and two. Here, as there, Merola presents complex medical and scientific data with a simplicity easy enough for virtually anyone to grasp, and in some instances sounding like a freshman college lecture or a particularly advanced episode of “Sesame Street.” These are not criticisms—because given how problematic and unintentionally misleading much mainstream medical reporting is, one can appreciate the film's patient tone, clear enunciation, and yellow-marker-style highlighting of onscreen text excerpted from medical journals and the like.

And Merola well needs be careful: The issue of fetal stem cells is both complicated and controversial. The documentary mentions four types of stem cells—microscopic building blocks of life—which are taken from bone marrow, the bloodstream or body tissue and then multiplied in a lab. Any of these four types can be injected into patients suffering from a myriad of diseases, and to lesser or greatest extents can repair and re-grow degenerating tissue, including brain tissue. Adult stem cells are the least controversial, and there are few objections to umbilical stem cells, harvested from newborns' umbilical cords. But religious and ethical objections have been raised to embryonic stem cells, taken from a woman's fertilized eggs, and to fetal stem cells, taken, with the woman's permission, from aborted fetal tissue that would otherwise be discarded. Of all four types, fetal stem cells by far work best and have the fewest side issues, such as the noncancerous tumors that embryonic stem calls can cause.

The documentary doesn't mention two recent embryonic stem-cell developments, one that harvests cells without destroying the fetus and one that obtains the cells without actually creating a fetus. It also doesn't talk about the cost of treatment, which presumably is high, not covered by insurance and illegal in the U.S. Cells are harvested primarily in the former Soviet republic of Georgia and processed in Germany, with treatment given in Tijuana, Mexico—all of which sounds like the makings of a sinister thriller but which is open, aboveboard and legal in those countries. The film also gives no voice to the other side of the debate, and while religious objections frankly can be discounted—science is science, and religion has objected to the idea of a spherical Earth and Galileo—it would have provided balance to have had an ethicist state concerns over whether embryonic and fetal stem-cell harvesting devalues life.

Yet, as legendary TV producer George Schlatter puts it here, some people even objected to polio-vaccine pioneer Jonas Salk, "and having had polio I wish they'd have stopped resisting before I got it." Merola filmed 200 patients of Dr. William C. Rader's Stem Cell of America, one of three labs worldwide doing stem-cell treatment—one lab declined to cooperate with the documentary and the other did not respond—and presents well over a dozen cases in-depth. We're talking young people and old with cystic fibrosis, muscular dystrophy, Parkinson's disease, ankylosing spondylitis—which fuses your vertebrae—fibromyalgia, rheumatoid arthritis and lupus... all of them helped to remarkable extents by fetal stem-cell injections. Seeing and hearing the gut-wrenching, emotional plaintiveness of these desperately ill people and their families should break the heart of anybody who has a heart.

And in that, the documentary achieves great success—not because it's proselytizing a miracle cure (which Merola makes sure to say this isn't, noting that some patients see only marginal or no improvement), but in making a concrete-strong case for the FDA to change an onerous, outdated system that essentially will never approve fetal stem-cell treatment. Merola makes a convincing case that that federal agency—which since 1992 has very transparently let pharmaceutical companies pay to speed up the approval process—is highly influenced by Big Pharma. As many people in the documentary point out, that industry makes its money on sick people who need medication, preferably for a lifetime. Fetal stem-call treatment—which can't be patented and so can't be anyone's golden-goose monopoly—can arrest degenerative diseases and give chronically ill people a normal life without the need for medicine. Why would the pharmaceutical industry want that? Because a number of people in terrible pain and degeneration can live normal lives? Where's the money in that?

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