What are the cultural implications of medical advances that are allowing many of us to live longer?
To help analyze this question in detail, the Vatican is co-hosting a Rome conference on regenerative medicine, with an emphasis on advances in adult stem cell research. The meeting, titled “Regenerative Medicine: A Fundamental Shift in Science & Culture”, will take place in the new Synod Hall of the Paul VI building in the Vatican from 11–13 April.
Msgr. Tomasz Trafny, head of the Pontifical Council for Culture’s Science and Faith Foundation, told a Vatican press conference yesterday that as well as analysing the consequences of “regenerative medicine in general and adult stem cells in particular” on society and culture, it will also try to make impenetrable science accessible to those without a scientific background, and then disseminate it “at a high level.”
Adult stem cells are found in small numbers in most adult tissues and can be used to regenerate or repair diseased tissue and organs. The Church says such medical treatment is ethical as opposed to embryonic stem cells which requires the destruction of fertilized embryos that are three to five days old. Despite the ethical concerns, some scientists continue to argue that all types of stem cell research should be pursued.
But Dr. Robin Smith, CEO of New York-based NeoStem and president of its nonprofit arm, the Stem for Life Foundation, revealed at yesterday’s conference that adult stem cell research has been more successful, with 4,300 treatments now in clinical trials compared to only 26 based on embryonic stem cells.
The Stem for Life Foundation is co-hosting the conference with the Vatican’s Pontifical Council for Culture, the Pontifical Academy for Life and the Pontifical Council for Health Pastoral Care.
Msgr. Tomasz said the Vatican wants to have “a cultural influence on society” by pointing to research which is “in tune with the highest moral values of protecting the life and dignity of the human being from the moment of conception.” But he added it’s aware that such influence must come through “far-sighted support” of religious, social and political leaders, as well as others ready to commit to “long-term scientific, bioethical and cultural research.”
“In the end we are convinced that, in order to have a meaningful impact on culture it is necessary to know how to overcome prejudice and antagonism, promoting the logic of dialogue and cooperation at various levels,” he said. “That is why we feel called to collaborate with the most prestigious professors, research institutes, and universities around the world.”
Compared to a similar Vatican conference on this issue in 2011, this one is more about outside participation than scientific analysis, a Vatican official told the Register. The last one was “more introspective,” he said, adding that this will have “more student participation, engagement with public institutions, the press, and the media.”
The official said the conference aims to be a “preventative” step “against euthanasia” and “to express the Church’s desire to be compassionate, to look at how we can help people.” He added: “The Church is being accused of anti-medicine, so what we’re doing is upping the positive aspect of adult stem cells which don’t seem to pose any ethical problems.”
Msgr. Trafny said the conference aims to diffuse “the positive, encouraging, and optimistic message of the Church's support of high quality, ethical research to both scholars—so that they have no doubts of our commitment—as well as to those who are struggling with the pain of degenerative disease and who are awaiting hopeful signs from the research.”
Cardinal Gianfranco Ravasi, president of Pontifical Council for Culture, said the upcoming meeting was aimed at showing that the Catholic Church did “not intervene only negatively” in the debate on stem cell research, and its commitment to finding cures was more than just “words.” He noted that half of the Gospel of Mark is dedicated to Jesus’ healing ministry, and so there is a natural alliance between the Church and healthcare that needs to be upheld.