Photo courtesy of the institute

Dr. Alan Moy is a man of science and a man of faith. 

He can’t separate the two, and he wouldn’t want to. 

That’s why he started the John Paul II Stem Cell Research Institute in Coralville, Iowa. 

The institute, started in 2007, aims to “create a faster and more streamlined process in doing research that will find cures and therapies exclusively using a variety of adult stem cells,” according to its mission statement. 

The institute also is developing research tools for therapies by using adult stem cells. In addition, it will increase the number of scientists and future medical practitioners who will work with adult stem cells, with an emphasis on bioethics that is consistent with the dignity of human life. 

Church support  

That one word — “adult” — might be the most important in the mission statement, because the institute named in honor of the former pope is committed to share the good news about stem cells that can be harvested without the death of an embryonic human being. 

That’s what happens when scientists harvest embryonic stem cells — the cells formed shortly after an egg is fertilized and the zygote begins to grow. Embryonic stem cells have the potential to turn into any of the differentiated cells in the human body, which makes scientists eager to use them to treat a variety of ailments. 

Moy, a medical doctor and a biomedical engineer, wants to cure those same diseases, but by using adult stem cells. “Adult” stem cells can come from the blood found in the umbilical cord or placenta after a baby is born, or in bone marrow or some other cells in children and adults. 

While the Catholic Church teaches that use of embryonic stem cells is always wrong because it involves the death of an embryo, it supports research into use of adult stem cells. 

Pope Benedict XVI has given research into adult stem cells his blessing and encouragement. The John Paul II Stem Cell Research Institute counts among its board members Bishop Robert Finn of the Diocese of Kansas City-St. Joseph, Mo. 

The Vatican’s Pontifical Academy for Life came out in favor of adult stem cell research in 2000, with its “Declaration on the Production and the Scientific and Therapeutic Use of Human Embryonic Stem Cells.” The document concluded: 

“The possibility, now confirmed, of using adult stem cells to attain the same goals as would be sought with embryonic stem cells ... indicates that adult stem cells represent a more reasonable and human method for making correct and sound progress in this new field of research and in the therapeutic applications which it promises. These applications are undoubtedly a source of great hope for a significant number of suffering people.” 

Pro-life process  

“One can be pro-life, pursue adult stem cell research and not give up hope, not have to sacrifice their ethics to serve patients with human diseases,” Moy told OSV. 

If Catholics want to show their commitment to respecting human life at all of its stages, they should back adult stem cell research, Moy said. 

Such support is necessary, because embryonic stem cell research is drawing far more attention from the government and researchers in the United States. 

“The reason is that the federal government is ignoring human adult stem cell research,” Moy said. “Human adult stem cell research is being shortchanged. The country is not advancing in any strategic way human adult stem cell research.” 

That’s in contrast to the rest of the world, he said. Globally, 80 percent of biotechnological companies are pursuing human adult stem cell research. 

The center is still in its infancy, trying to raise $10 million to build its own building, and develop an ongoing funding stream to pay for research. 

But it does have some research going on, Moy said, working on a process that essentially transforms adult stem cells into very primitive cells, with the same properties that allow embryonic stem cells to turn into anything from skin to muscle to nerve tissue. 

That process to create such cells — called “induced pluri-potent stem cells” — is so far very inefficient, Moy said. 

Moy hopes the institute can improve the process so it is better and can work on patients with many different conditions. He also wants the institute to use stem cells to produce cells that have certain diseases, so that new therapies can be tested on them before the therapies go to clinical trials. 

A former faculty member in the departments of internal medicine and biomedical engineering at the University of Iowa, Moy is also the founder and CEO of Cellular Engineering Technology, a biotech company that specializes in adult stem cells. 

His company and the research institute are working together on some projects, including a study looking at the effects of different drugs on various lung cancer cell lines and one looking at whether the number of cardiovascular stem cells in particular individuals can predict their susceptibility to cardiovascular disease. 

Long way to go  

Moy cautions that amazing new therapies are not right around the corner. The scientific community knows very little about stem cell biology, he said. 

“Adult and cord stem cell research has translated into some clinical therapies, while embryonic stem cell research have not,” the institute’s website explains. “Adult and cord stem cell research has been successfully conducted in several animal models and in small clinical studies. There is anecdotal data in patients suggesting that adult and cord stem cells may benefit some patients. Yet, it is important to note that there are few controlled clinical trials using adult and cord stem cells that have shown proven efficacy and safety. It is not clear whether use of any stem cells will have a dramatic impact on disease.” 

He wants the John Paul II Stem Cell Research Institute to be in the forefront as the possibilities become realities, he said. 

“The institute’s goal is to achieve scientific success, scientific milestones, that the secular sectors of society will take notice of and carry on with. We will be able to do things quicker and better and ethically. They will want to partner with us.” 

Michelle Martin writes from Illinois. Visit www.jp2sri.org/ to learn more about the institute.