The John Paul II Stem Cell Research Institute is blazing a new ethical trail: The institute works only within Church-approved boundaries with adult stem cells and advocates against any and all research with embryonic stem cells.
Dr. Alan Moy, a physician and scientist who maintains his private practice and is an adjunct associate professor at the University of Iowa, founded the Iowa City, Iowa, nonprofit institute in 2006 because he saw a lack of ethical research in the scientific world as stem-cell research emerged. He “found it important there be an institution that would advocate solely for adult stem cells for several reasons.”
First, he saw the government funding human embryonic stem-cell research much more than adult stem-cell research.
Next, Moy felt there was a need to better understand the extremely complex biology involved. To do that, “that science needed to be in a nonprofit environment,” he said. “Some aspects were not ready to be commercialized. It needed to be in the public domain.”
Then, he knew adult stem-cell research had the possibility to better understand and treat specific diseases and be used as tools to come up with new drugs to treat those diseases.
Moy chose the name because he saw a real need to educate Catholics in the pro-life community that adult stem-cell research is morally legitimate and approved by the Church versus lethal embryonic stem-cell research.
“That is an important education milestone that needs to be overcome,” he says. “One way to crack that is to have a name after someone like [Blessed] John Paul II. The other reason: He’s honored because he spoke so passionately about this when he was alive.”
Stem cells are undifferentiated, primitive cells that have the ability both to multiply and to differentiate into specific blood cells and other cell/tissue types. This ability allows them to replace dead or defective cells and/or tissues.
Embryonic stem-cell research, which involves the killing of a unique human being in an attempt to cure different diseases, has proven not only destructive and costly, but has not produced a cure. Adult stem-cell research, which utilizes cells from adult tissues or umbilical cords, does not require the destruction of human life. It has proven successful in treating more than 70 kinds of cancers and autoimmune diseases such as multiple sclerosis.
Pope John Paul II said that all research using stem cells from human embryos is “morally unacceptable.”
In his 1995 encyclical Evangelium Vitae, John Paul said, “This moral condemnation also regards procedures that exploit living human embryos and fetuses — sometimes specifically ‘produced’ for this purpose by in vitro fertilization — either to be used as ‘biological material’ or as providers of organs or tissue for transplants in the treatment of certain diseases.
“The killing of innocent human creatures, even if carried out to help others, constitutes an absolutely unacceptable act.”
Several types of diseases, notably rare orphan diseases for which there is very limited or no therapy, are being underfunded.
“The technology was evolving,” Moy said, “where it was possible in the field to develop specific stem cells from patients with specific diseases and to use them as models to find drugs that could target these diseases when there was currently no other therapy available.”
Need for Research
The institute has been able to obtain adult stem-cell lines from children with Niemann-Pick Type C, a very rare neurodegenerative children’s disease similar to adult Alzheimer’s, and is now working on the next step.
A large part of the institute’s mission is to develop stem-cell treatments for diseases like this and to collaborate with other institutes around the globe.
Moy is also the founder and CEO of Cellular Engineering Technologies, Inc., an Iowa-based partner biotechnology company of the institute. Right now, Cellular Engineering has cutting-edge technologies and the largest repository of adult stem cells which they provide to scientists all over the world.
The work of the institute is all the more exciting because in June the Vatican’s Pontifical Council for Culture donated money to NeoStem, Inc., a biopharmaceutical company involved with adult stem-cell work in the United States and China.
Moy says NeoStem has a propriety way of growing one single adult stem cell out of blood. “In our operation,” he adds, “we have over seven times the number of ASCs. Every ASC doesn’t do everything well, and having a diverse library of ASCs that one can pull off the shelf provides the best chance of matching the right ASC with a particular patient.”
Moy’s institute is reaching out to the Vatican too. Two Vatican officials have already responded.
Cardinal Alfonso Lopez Trujillo, past president of the Pontifical Council for the Family, wrote to the institute before his death in 2008: “In view of the serious ethical dilemma that embryonic stem-cell research has provoked in the medical and health fields, I am very glad to hear of your courageous decision to promote a promising area of research which has not only demonstrated a more ethical approach, but also a scientifically proven superiority of results in the treatment of many diseases as compared with the embryonic stem-cell research approach.”
Kansas City-St. Joseph, Mo., Bishop Robert Finn, an institute board member, has presented information on the institute to the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, and the Iowa bishops have given their approval of the institute’s work.
Wrote Des Moines Bishop Richard Pates, “It is a blessing to be a part of the John Paul II Stem Cell Research Institute and your work to find cures exclusively using adult stem cells. … Adult stem-cell research is supported by the Church because of the great potential to find cures to end needless suffering with no ethical concerns.”
John Haas, president of the National Catholic Bioethics Center, has also said the institute is “committed to do research in an ethical manner.”
Ethical and Quicker
Moy says that research in line with Church teaching streamlines the process, doing it quicker and less expensively.
Now the institute is launching a campaign to raise funds to recruit scientists and carry on the research. Partnering with the Iowa Knights of Columbus, the institute requests parishes take up a second collection for its work and invites people with specific diseases or genetic disorders to contact them.
Said David Bellendier, the past Knights state deputy of Iowa and now member of the board of directors for the entire Knights of Columbus organization, “The Knights of Columbus are always pro-life and supportive of pro-life [causes], so things we can do that fall in line with Church teachings are what we hopefully will be able to support, not only financially, but also to get the word out.”
Register staff writer Joseph Pronechen is based in Trumbull, Connecticut.