Vatican, biotech firm aim for stem cell paradigm shift

Promoting education and networking to support ethical research of adult stem cell therapies are the aims of a recent collaboration between the Vatican’s Pontifical Council for Culture and a New York-based biopharmaceutical company. 

Last year, the Vatican signed a $1 million contract with Neo-Stem to advance adult stem cell education and research. 

The Pontifical Council for Culture’s foundation — STOQ International (Science Theology and the Ontological Quest) — and NeoStem’s Stem for Life Foundation were the driving forces behind the Nov. 9-11 conference, titled “Adult Stem Cells: Science and the Future of Man and Culture.” Among the Church and scientific leaders, policymakers, ethicists, educators and health ministers on the schedule were keynote speakers Tommy Thompson, former secretary of Health and Human Services; Jesuit Father Kevin FitzGerald, a bioethicist at Georgetown University; and Arthur Caplan, a University of Pennsylvannia bioethicist. 

Dominican Father Nicanor Austriaco, a molecular biologist, told OSV that the conference was to highlight the innovation and excitement generated by adult stem cell and nonembryonic pluripotent stem cell technologies, which are often ignored by mainstream media outlets. 

“Embryonic stem cell research is controversial and controversial items are considered more newsworthy than non-controversial ones like adult stem cell research. However, I think that the debate is moving beyond embryonic versus adult stem cells because of the development of embryonic-like stem cells derived from adult cells,” Father Austriaco said. 

The Vatican and NeoStem also plan to spearhead an educational campaign geared toward generating awareness of the cultural relevance of a fundamental shift in medical treatment options, especially in regard to the impact on theological and ethical issues. 

Recently, Our Sunday Visitor spoke with NeoStem’s CEO, Dr. Robin Smith, on the collaboration with the Vatican and the future of stem cell research.

Our Sunday Visitor: How did this partnership develop? 

Dr. Robin Smith: We were introduced to Father Tomasz Trafny, the head of the Science and Faith Department at the Pontifical Council for Culture, who is very focused on science and medical advancements and how those discoveries affect society and impact culture. [The Vatican] is very focused on stem-cell research, and we saw this [collaboration] as an opportunity to show that you don’t have to choose between faith and science.

OSV: How has the Vatican responded to NeoStem’s scientific initiatives? 

Smith: They were very excited about our technology and the advantages of using these adult stem cells to treat diseases and how they can help to reduce human suffering and be done in a way where people are not choosing between faith and science.

OSV: How does NeoStem benefit from this collaboration?

Smith: NeoStem is very focused on this paradigm shift in medicine. We believe adult stem cells will be the answer to so many debilitating problems impacting people all over the world, of all ages, in all walks of life. The emerging paradigm will focus on how we take these stem cells and develop new therapies and medical treatments. Our company is focused on advancing stem cell therapy to treat diseases. These stem cells in our bodies are capable of serving as a repair mechanism, and we can use these cells for regenerative medicine. We are learning how they can be used to repair burns, degenerative diseases and other illnesses. 

OSV: Why isn’t NeoStem involved in embryonic stem cell research? 

Smith: There are 70 diseases where we already use adult stem cells as part of the medical care. We know they are safe. They are effective. There are no embryonic stem cell therapies anywhere and there are also problems with their safety, including the ethical concerns surrounding them. Why would you want to work on something with those safety issues and ethical issues, when you can work on adult stem cells that have none of those problems and have already been shown to be safe and effective in other therapies? 

OSV: What about the arguments that embryonic stem cells carry advantages over adult stem cells in that they can theoretically be transformed into more types of cells? 

Smith: If you look at the literature of recent scientific advancements, you see adult stem cells have all the potential of embryonic stem cells. It is not the case that embryonic stem cells do better than adult stem cells. It’s actually the opposite. 

NeoStem holds the worldwide exclusive license to VSEL Technology, which uses very small embryonic-like stem cells that are already in your body. These cells have all the beneficial properties of an embryonic stem cell. These can become other types of cells without the complications, safety implications and mutations associated with embryonic stem cells. 

OSV: What are your hopes for the conference?  

Smith: We want to create the road map of the future of adult stem cell research. We want to lay the groundwork of a collaboration between the patrons and the scientists to advance research and reduce human suffering. This is a five-year partnership between NeoStem and the Vatican. We want to be able to educate society’s understanding of what an adult stem cell is and what its promises are by supporting scientific research in accord with ethical values. 

The long- and short-term initiatives around this partnership is that they can also help Church leaders, politicians and educators to understand this cultural paradigm shift, regenerative medicine, that is arising in medicine. We hope that we can get not just Church leaders, but also ministers of health and the scientific community to work together to advance the research and transfer stem-cell therapies safely from the laboratory to the clinic. 

OSV: What is new and cutting edge in the world of stem-cell research? 

Smith: We are seeing many advancements in clinical trials around the world in the areas of autoimmune, cardiac care, cardiovascular diseases. I think we will see many more advancements. Currently there are 19,000 adult stem-cell therapy trials. I think we will see more and more people being treated in clinical trials. 

OSV: What have been your impressions of the Vatican thus far in your collaboration? 

Smith: It’s been great. They are very nonjudgmental and they are very accepting of everybody. It is not about religion, race or where you are from. We both have a mission to foster the highest possible levels of scientific research and to explore the cultural impact and the implications of that work as we seek to transfer knowledge from the lab to the clinic. 

Brian Fraga writes from Massachusetts.