NEW YORK — A Vatican conference next month could help influence public figures to get behind adult stem-cell research, much in the way Michael J. Fox is lobbying for embryonic stem-cell research.
That’s the hope of Dr. Robin Smith, CEO of NeoStem, an international biopharmaceutical firm based in New York.
The Nov. 9-11 conference, “Adult Stem Cells: Science and the Future of Man and Culture,” will bring Church leaders, policymakers, government health ministers and ambassadors to the Holy See together with scientists, stem-cell companies and patients who have participated in adult stem-cell trials.
The gathering will feature Tommy Thompson, former U.S. secretary of Health and Human Services; Jesuit Father Kevin FitzGerald, a bioethicist at Georgetown; TV medical correspondent Max Gomez; Arthur Caplan, a bioethicist at the University of Pennsylvania, and others. It is the first public event sponsored by NeoStem and the Pontifical Council for Culture since the two entered into a formal partnership last year. The conference is part of a larger plan to foster education and networking in support of ethical research.
“The most important thing we can do now is gather people,” said Father Tomasz Trafny, head of the Science and Faith Department of the Pontifical Council for Culture. “We want to invite scientists, Church leaders, organizations that are working in that field of research to come, to approach us.”
Their efforts are being made at a time when there is still much support for embryonic stem-cell research, both in the public funding of it and the fact that it is a cause célèbre with certain public figures.
Not all is well with embryonic research, however. According to Reuters, the European Court of Justice Oct. 19 banned patenting any stem-cell process involving the destruction of a human embryo. A spokesman for the European Center for Law and Justice in Strasbourg, France, said the measure “protects life and human dignity” at all stages of development.
Smith and Father Trafny spoke to the Register recently in the New York offices of NeoStem. The collaboration of the publicly traded company with the Pontifical Council for Culture, announced in May 2010, is, according to Christian Brugger of the Culture of Life Foundation, the Vatican’s “first contractual foray into stem-cell research with a for-profit secular corporation.”
David Prentice, senior fellow for life sciences in the Family Research Council’s Center for Human Life and Bioethics, is also on the program for the November conference.
“It is certainly significant that the Vatican is partnering with NeoStem, since the Vatican fully supports ethical stem-cell research and treatments (adult stem cells) but rejects anything that endangers human life or involves unethical aspects, i.e., embryonic stem-cell research,” he said. “It is very encouraging that the Vatican would place resources toward adult stem-cell research. This is not empty rhetoric, but putting the resources to work to advance ethical and successful adult stem-cell therapies, and should hasten the development of real treatments using ethical adult stem cells.”
Indeed, as part of the deal, the Vatican contributed $1 million toward NeoStem’s efforts.
Also speaking next month is Dominican Father Nicanor Austriaco, a molecular biologist at Providence College.
“People are surprised” when they learn that the Vatican is involved in a stem-cell company. “But if the Catholic Church is out there to promote good — and we do this in many charitable ways: providing funding for different apostolates — this would just be, in a sense, a very unique instance of that.”
He noted that there are precedents for what the Vatican is doing on a local level, with the Archdiocese of Sydney, Australia, and several Korean dioceses having contributed monetarily to ethical stem-cell research.
Father Trafny, a Polish priest who has served with the Pontifical Council for Culture for five years and studied the philosophy of science and epistemology at the Catholic University of Lublin and the Pontifical Lateran University, said the council investigated NeoStem before proceeding with the deal. But the most important thing for the Vatican, he said, “was to understand if we shared the same objective.”
“We discovered that NeoStem has a very stable, very clear ethical statement,” he said. “They are involved in cellular therapies and only in adult stem-cell research. That’s very important from our moral point of view. They … look for the cultural consequences of their work. This is something unique compared to other companies that are looking only for economic benefits or profits.”
Simplifying the Science
An important part of the collaboration, for both sides, is education.
“People are not able to follow the very sophisticated language of science,” Father Trafny said. “We need to offer a positive way of explanation: to some extent translate this highly sophisticated knowledge into simple terms.”
Towards that end, he said, the organizers of next month’s conference challenged speakers “to prepare presentations that must be understandable” for the invited Church leaders, ambassadors and others who have no scientific background.
In addition, he said, the project is working on “e-learning programs” concerning stem cells, and the Vatican is considering the reintroduction of the natural sciences in certain pontifical Catholic universities where they had been replaced by social sciences.
The Pontifical Council for Culture is “very much involved in searching for a cultural impact of advances in science,” Father Trafny said. “Our duty is to help the Pope understand dynamic tendencies within contemporary society. We can’t ignore contemporary society’s fully being led by technology and science. This is one of the most crucial fields we have to explore and understand — and, if it is possible, to predict the tendencies we can expect in the future.”
But is the Vatican concerned that NeoStem might one day move into embryonic stem-cell research? Father Trafny says he is reassured by the fact that adult stem-cell technology is the “safest, most developed and most promising” stem-cell technology, “so why should they spend money on something that is not promising and that raises a lot of medical, biological issues and ethical concerns?”
Said Smith, who is a Jewish physician, “The good news is: We can preserve life at all levels with the work that we do, which is why the collaboration has been able to be successful, from the interest of the Vatican.”
For NeoStem, the decision to avoid work with human embryonic stem cells, which are derived from human embryos and involve their killing, is primarily based on “safety.”
“There are no current therapies using embryonic stem cells because they do not have the safety profile that an adult stem cell has,” Smith said. “And the adult stem cells have all the benefits of embryonic stem cells.”
NeoStem holds the exclusive license for a type of adult stem cell known as “very small embryonic-like” stem cells — VSELs — developed by Dr. Mariusz Ratajczak at the University of Louisville. “They’re in you and me today; they’re sitting there in our bone marrow,” Smith explained. “They can become all cell types, like an embryonic stem cell, but you can put them down a lineage of what they can become, so you don’t get the cancer formation, the teratoma formations, that you have with an embryonic stem cell. And because they’re your own cells, you don’t have the issues of rejection.”
“So, everything from the scientific perspective, from NeoStem’s collaborators and management, is focused on only adult stem cells and other cell types that can impact disease and can be used to create therapies,” she continued, “and we do not believe that embryonic stem cells are a viable solution for the future.”
NeoStem is trying to find ways to isolate VSEL cells cost-effectively for use in bone regeneration, retinal injuries and other applications.
Ratajczak will also be speaking at the Vatican conference.
“There’s so much misunderstanding of what a stem cell is,” said Smith. “People don’t realize that bone-marrow transplants, which we’ve done for 30 years, are actually stem cells. … People need to understand that adult stem cells are currently in the practice for (treating) things like leukemia, lymphoma, multiple myeloma, anemia. We’re finding ways to take your own body’s repair mechanisms and use them for other things in regenerative medicine: immunological diseases like MS and lupus, and it’s a paradigm shift in medicine that we’re seeing to use cell therapy.”
John Burger is the Register’s news editor.