This past week's international stem cell conference held at the Vatican offered a lot of hope for adult stem cell therapies.
The conference took place over two days. Among the speakers: Peter Coffey of University College of London, whose research includes stem cell therapies for treating macular degeneration; Monsignor Ignacio Carrasco de Paula, current Head of the Pontifical Council for Life; Arthur Caplan, Professor of Bioethics at University of Pennsylvania, and Robin Smith, CEO of NeoStem, U.S. based firm which helps people bank their own stem cells for possible future use.
Judging from the Catholic Press in the U.S., the Vatican seems to be more interested in showing the world it is not "against" science than the actual merits of the different types of stem cell research itself.
Our Sunday Visitor correspondent Brian Fraga interviewed Smith. Her enthusiasm for the promise of adult stem cell therapies and induced pluripotent stem cells (adult cells that have been reprogrammed into stem cells) was evident.
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.
Vatican Insider provided its own over-dramatic take (with boldface):
The "regenerative medicine" that promises to rebuild organs damaged by illness or by age, is one of the most advanced frontiers in medical research today. But it presents huge ethical dilemmas because the stems are obtained from human embryos at the price of destroying them.
For Pope Ratzinger, who today gave an audience for the participants of the Conference, (the result of the partnership between the Pontifical Council for Culture and the American pharmaceutical company NeoStem), those who justify these actions with the possibility of saving human lives and curing illnesses that are currently incurable commit "the grave mistake of denying the inalienable right to life of every human being, from the moment of conception to their natural death."
But Arthur Caplan, who also spoke at the conference, was not as persuaded in his assessment at MSNBC. He was particularly critical of claims of any "paradigm shift" in stem cell research.
While some top-tier science was presented at the conference, there was too much time given to claims of cure that had little to support them but patient testimonials, small studies with no long-term follow-up, and, to be blunt, some science that has nothing but the backing of a single very optimistic scientist looking to attract a grant or an investor.
This sounds harsh, but I think Caplan raises a good point: embryonic stem cell research needs to be discussed more broadly, even by institutions or groups that have ethical questions about it.
I'll be speaking soon with some of the other presenters at the conference, one of whom in particular, Father Nicanor Austriaco, of Providence College, is a first rate scientist with his own lab.