Adult Stem-Cell Transplants: A Journey of Faith Backed by Science

Ethical research has produced treatments that are miracles of modern science — but the transplant process itself is a journey of faith in God, say recipients.

Cancer-survivor Cindy Schroeder and her family
Cancer-survivor Cindy Schroeder and her family (photo: )

SALINA, Kan. — A cascade of tears overcame Cindy Schroeder when her doctor sat down with her and gave her the diagnosis that shattered her world: cancer. But with a husband and a family to take care of — including two daughters not even in high school — Schroeder rallied to ask her doctor, “What do we do next?”

Thankfully, he had an answer for her that gave her what she needed — hope.

“He said we need to look into an adult stem-cell transplant,” Schroeder told the Register, recalling that doctor’s office conversation.

Schroeder had a diagnosis of a deadly blood cancer, multiple myeloma. The disease had ravaged her body — as the doctors discovered, it had spread to her lungs and kidneys — robbing her of energy and mobility, leaving her mostly wheelchair-bound.

Medical advances in ethical adult stem-cell research had opened up the good possibility for Schroeder to have a new lease on life, whereas traditional cancer approaches up to that point would have been able to offer her at most three to five years. That time was not enough for Schroeder, as her daughters were still in fifth and eighth grades and needed their mother during those formative years.

“I said, ‘If I do this, and I’m here for another 10-15 years, then why not try it?”

So Schroeder went through with the stem-cell transplant, which truly was both a journey of faith and medical science that required an enormous amount of support and endurance. The doctors hooked her up to a machine through an intravenous port that harvested stem cells from her bone marrow and filtered out the damaged cells. Then Schroeder endured a grueling chemotherapy regimen to annihilate the cancer in her body. Next — at what Schroeder felt was her breaking point — the doctors re-injected the “clean” stem cells into her body through the IV port. Finally, she went into recovery.

Throughout the ordeal, Schroeder relied on her faith in God, her husband who never left her side, her son and the knowledge “that I had two little girls I needed to get back home to.”

The stem-cell transplant was a success, reducing the presence of cancer in her blood from 70% to 2%. She is back to doing what she loves, and with more energy than ever before: teaching school as a special-education teacher and taking care of her family.

Now, Schroeder just has regular maintenance doses of chemotherapy to make sure the disease stays in remission. The doctors told her they harvested enough stem cells from the first time to do it again, if needed.

“Without the transplant, I wouldn’t be here today,” she said, crediting the knowledge and dedication of her Salina, Kan.-based oncologist Dr. Larry Beck, as well as Dr. Michael Maris of the Colorado Blood Cancer Institute, for saving her life.


Adult Stem-Cell Advances

According to David Prentice, vice president and research director for the Washington-based Charlotte Lozier Institute, adult stem cells are the “gold standard” of stem-cell research. Adult stem cells, Prentice explained, are the human body’s “built-in repair kit.” Their job is to replace cells as they wear out and stimulate damaged tissues to repair themselves. Medical researchers have been learning how to harvest adult stem cells and harness their properties to treat illnesses that otherwise have no treatments or cures.

Prentice said adult stem-cell transplants are standard practice for “between 10-20 conditions” related to blood disorders. Peer-reviewed research, he says, has established between 80-90 treatments for a variety of medical conditions.

Scientific researchers go through a three-phase process to develop stem-cell treatments. Phase one determines whether it is safe, phase two evaluates its effectiveness, and phase three fine-tunes the dosage.

“There’s still a lot more ground to cover,” he added. One of the areas that needs more research is the impact adult stem cells can have on the brain and in treating such conditions as Parkinson’s, Alzheimer’s and Lou Gehrig’s diseases.

“There’s not nearly enough done in that area,” Prentice said.

The Charlotte Lozier Institute has developed the site as a central depository of research on adult stem-cell treatments.

“It makes common sense, and it makes scientific sense,” he said.

Prentice says the field is “moving very fast,” as new reports come in about treatments for autoimmune conditions, such as multiple sclerosis and even strokes. A recent Stanford University stroke trial, he noted, showed 18 persons — some of whom were two and a half years post-stroke event — had substantial improvements beyond what is ordinarily possible today, thanks to the ethical possibilities of adult stem cells.

Prentice estimates that two-thirds of stem-cell related scientific funding is now spent on adult stem-cell research. The remaining third is spent on embryonic stem-cell research, which involves the creation and destruction of human life in its embryonic stage for the purpose of harvesting its stem cells.

So far, embryonic stem cells have not yielded any successful treatments. While its ethical counterpart, adult stem-cell research, has yielded enormous success, Prentice observed, “It hasn’t, unfortunately, been translated into an increase of funding.”

The Catholic Church teaches that embryonic stem-cell research is morally wrong, and the U.S. bishops have assembled a webpage containing links that outline the Church’s teachings and contrast the medical successes that have resulted from adult stem-cell research with the lack of comparable results obtained from embryo-killing stem-cell research.


To the Brink and Back

The adult stem-cell transplant is a journey that offers a promised land of life — but demands everything from cancer patients to get there.

Paul Wagle of Wichita, Kan., tells the Register that, as a 14-year-old Catholic with leukemia, an adult stem-cell transplant derived from umbilical cord blood was his only option left for life. At the time, 11 years ago, the traditional chemotherapy treatment had failed, and his cancer had come back stronger.

The doctors told Wagle he had a 50% chance of surviving the procedure. Wagle underwent the procedure, and, while ultimately successful, he tells the Register it was an incredible ordeal that challenged him emotionally, spiritually, mentally and physically. Moving from friends and family in Kansas to Cook Children’s Hospital in Fort Worth, Texas, he missed eighth grade.

“I had to live in isolation,” he recalled. However, he says he was “blessed” with a great support system, and his biggest support was going to daily Mass — as much as he could — while going through the process: “They take your body to the brink and bring you back just before you knock on heaven’s door.”

But the worst pain came not from the chemo, but from feeling the marrow regrow inside his bones, thanks to the stem cells. He also had several near-death experiences and painful complications, including graft vs. host disease (where the transplanted immune system attacks the person’s body) and septicemia, where bacteria started growing in his bloodstream; he only had a 5% chance of survival.

Wagle’s own experience of the adult stem-cell transplant process, led him to begin a process of discernment for how God wanted him to bring good out of the sufferings he went through as a youth. He discerned through two and a half years in seminary for the Diocese of Wichita, until he believed that God was calling him to help develop better support systems for cancer patients going through adult stem-cell transplants.

“We’ll see what God has in store for me,” he said. “I haven’t quite figured it out, but God has been bringing up different opportunities.”


An Ethical Path

Adult stem cells have provided medical researchers a way to develop treatments and therapies for a number of cancers, diseases and conditions in a way that respects human life and dignity.

John DiCamillo, a staff ethicist at the National Catholic Bioethics Center in Philadelphia, tells the Register that adult stem cells — which include sources such as umbilical cord blood, but are not technically from adults — can be used morally so long as they are used for “legitimate purposes and other immoral means are not involved in their use.”

However, despite the advances of adult stem cells, a number of scientists doggedly persist in trying to develop treatments and therapies using human embryonic stem cells. Part of the reason, DiCamillo said, may proceed from an “if we can do it, we should do it” mentality among researchers who mistakenly think science has no moral boundaries and every avenue that can be explored should be explored, without limitation. Another part could be the pursuit of grant funding by presenting embryonic stem cells as having “unlimited potential” with revolutionary implications for the medical world.

So far, no treatments or cures have resulted from embryonic stem-cell research, which involves the destruction of human embryos to harvest their stem cells. A number of experimental therapies have resulted in tumors for patients. However, DiCamillo cautions that it is certainly possible, “given enough funding and time,” that treatments for disease may be developed from embryonic stem-cell research.

“Of course, it can certainly be wondered why such ethically problematic approaches are being legalized, funded and promoted, when there are myriad opportunities to achieve the same ends through the use of non-controversial adult stem cells or ethically legitimate induced pluripotent stem cells,” he said.
“There is no question that treatments can and should be developed in ethically sound ways, and there can never be an ethical imperative to do evil that good may come of it.”


Second Chance for Seniors

The benefits of adult stem-cell research extend not only to the young and middle-aged, but to those in their old age, as well.

Bill Bourland of Tucson, Ariz., would have been dead years ago from myelodysplastic syndrome, and not be traveling with his wife, Mary, to a family reunion in Flagstaff, Ariz., if it were not for his adult stem-cell transplant at 67 years old.

Mary told the Register that they did not have a one-stop-shop resource like at the time. She began to do a lot of Internet research and sending of emails, with many dead-ends along the way. Some doctors would not consider Bill, saying he was “too old” for a stem-cell transplant.  

However, Mary’s persistence and research — and a providential encounter with a stem-cell transplant recipient — led them to Dr. Andrew Yeager at the University of Arizona cancer center. Mary remembered Yeager telling them that overall health and attitude were his key factors for a person to be a candidate for a stem-cell transplant, and Bill had plenty of both.

Bill told the Register he went over his options: Without the stem-cell transplant, he faced a series of chemotherapy, blood transfusions and ultimately palliative care, before dying in a few years. Yeager, he said, explained that the stem-cell transplant could give him a new lease on life, but it was a hard road ahead that carried only a 30% chance of success and risks of complications.

But the way Bill and Mary looked at it, a 30% chance of surviving cancer was better than the 0% chance they currently had.

“It was an easy decision for me,” Bill said.

The most difficult part of the adult stem-cell transplant for Bill was the chemotherapy regimen — the most dangerous part of the process — and losing much of his hair, weight and strength.

For him, the treatment lasted a month in the hospital, followed by recovery at home in a sterile environment for three months. The most dangerous part of recovery was graft vs. host disease, but that was treated with a regimen of prednisone.

He checked in every six months, and his latest visit — at 73 years old — showed he had a clean bill of health. Now, he looks forward to traveling with Mary for however many years they have left together.

“The fact that there is a second chance available for senior citizens like me is such a blessing,” Bill declared. “It is so easy to lose heart at this age, when you’ve been said ‘No’ to so many times, but the Good Lord gave me a second chance. And I hope I’m worthy of it.”


Peter Jesserer Smith is a Register staff reporter.