Editor's Note: This is a longer version of the print article.
The reason? Pro-lifers were spurred to look for an alternative place to help — with research on diseases in an ethical way, fully in line with Church teachings.
Since then, the John Paul II Medical Research Institute (JP2MRI.org) has been more well-known — although the Register covered its Church-approved work before that — said Jay Kamath, the institute’s CEO. It was a welcome recognition for this institute based in Iowa City, Iowa, which aims to show the national and international potential in finding cures through morally ethical adult stem-cell research.
Here’s a case in point: A few years ago, an Oregon family turned to the institute for help. Their two young children were suffering from the rare Niemann-Pick Type C, a disease for which there was no cure. Kamath describes it as a cholesterol metabolism disorder, where children’s bodies are unable to process cholesterol. This disease takes a tremendous toll, causing organ damage, dementia similar to Alzheimer’s and nerve-cell death. Many of the afflicted children die around age 10. The Oregon family’s younger child had the genetic condition with no symptoms, while the older child was already affected by the disease.
But the medical center named after the saint-champion of the “culture of life” was up to the challenge.
“We acquired some of the siblings’ fat cells, and we isolated the stem cells from that tissue,” Kamath explained. “We provided the stem cells with the disease condition within the cells to the National Institutes of Health (NIH), who, in collaboration with other academic institutes, used those cells to do drug testing. They discovered Cyclodextrin, a drug on the market being utilized for a completely unrelated disease, could significantly ameliorate the symptoms of this disease.”
Kamath explained how the NIH’s discovery and administration of Cyclodextrin halted the disease to a large extent from progressing in the older child. In the younger sibling, it seems to have prevented the onset of the disease. Both had significant improvements in their life quality, and, today, are alive and well as teenagers. And ethical and moral discovery and results prompted a larger clinical trial.
Through that particular study, JP2MRI learned that the same approach can be used to find treatments and, hopefully, cures for other diseases, from the more common to the rare ones — a corporal work of mercy of aiding the sick through unique medical action.
“Disease in a Dish” is what Kamath calls the institute’s program of taking adult blood and tissue samples, harvesting the stem cells and then differentiating them to create a variety of specialized cells found in the body “that might be used through our research and throughout the country to do drug screening. This process will determine the impact drugs in the pipeline have on the stem-cell lines we have created, prior to their introduction into patients and progression towards a clinical trial,” Kamath said. “We feel it’s a very effective model.”
The JP2MRI was founded by Dr. Alan Moy, a pulmonologist in Iowa City, who was named one of the leading physicians of the world in the field of pulmonary and sleep medicine by the International Association of Healthcare Professions.
Finding the research field had become so secularized, Moy saw “the need to make some effort for conducting research that follows Catholic teaching and follows a pro-life value system,” he said. Not only did he want to do research that supported his own religious and moral beliefs, but he found, “A lot of people came to us asking for support in doing this type of research.”
Part of that research means working on a universal stem cell that can replace embryonic stem cells that secular labs use so heavily.
Moy said, “We are working very hard on finding a universal stem cell, so people don’t have to face that moral dilemma of choosing a stem-cell therapy that conflicts with their moral decisions.”
The methods and goals have garnered endorsements from U.S. bishops to the Vatican: from the late Cardinal Alfonso Lopez Trujillo, who was president of the Pontifical Council for the Family, and Cardinal Javier Lozano Barragan, president of Pontifical Council for Health Care Workers.
Organizations like the Michigan Right to Life group and the local and state Knights of Columbus in Iowa are also strong supporters. Kamath expressed the institute’s hope to work with more Knights of Columbus councils and the fraternal organization’s headquarters, too.
The institute focuses on adult stem-cell research to aid a variety of conditions in four broad areas: first, neuro-degenerative diseases, including ALS, Alzheimer’s, Parkinson’s and spinal-cord damage to neurons; second, breast, prostate, pancreatic, lung and colorectal cancer; third, heart failure, diabetes and other diseases affecting aging adults; and, fourth, rare diseases.
Beginning in February, the institute put more effort and attention into rare diseases through its new Rare Genetic Disease Program. JP2MRI seeks to find cures not originating in any way from embryonic stem cells or aborted fetal tissue. Their work has already proven it has national and global effects.
“It’s a misnomer, since there are roughly 7,000 rare diseases that impact 30 million Americans,” Kamath clarified. A disease is defined “rare” if it impacts 200,000 or less in the country.
“Obviously, the families of these individuals and the toll taken is significant,” Kamath said. “Roughly 90%-95% have very little or no treatment options available. As a result, about 30% [of those affected] will die before age 5. The mortality rates of these diseases is high. We need to bring more attention to these rare diseases using adult stem cells.”
The institute’s answer is “Disease in a Dish” — the initiative that came about because of those two youngsters with Niemann-Pick. In fact, the “Disease in a Dish” can have a double effect: first, help those suffering and, second, ease the burdens of financing studies.
It takes roughly $10 billion through all the research stages to market, from the start to getting FDA approval, Kamath explained. “Obviously, it’s a very expensive and time-consuming endeavor, up to 10 years, and one of the reasons why the drugs are so expensive. The industry wants to recover the costs.”
“But through our research and our institute’s discovery of more efficient means,” Kamath added, “we are able to cut the time frame in a third. And the use of induced pluripotent cells — a specialized adult stem cell [taken from your own body] — replaces the use of embryonic stem cells. We want to highlight embryonic stem-cell research has not gone away in many institutions in this country.” Unfortunately, many research facilities support or conduct research using embryonic stem cells, which is condemned by the Church.
Direction and Support
Kamath pointed out how the institute is trying to reach people in two important ways. One is for funding. The institute puts nearly 60% of its funding into research, compared to other major established national foundations they looked into, which averaged only 15%-25%.
Second, the institute also wants people to sign up at its online patient registry to become part of current and future research studies. There’s also a registry on the website for physicians treating patients with diseases the institute is researching. The institute hopes to establish a network of patient-physician sites across the country, in order to advance cures.
“We need people to sign up on that registry,” Kamath said. “When we’re ready to do research on their specific disease or condition, we can contact them and ask them to provide blood samples or tissue biopsies, depending on the case.” The registry is secure; the institute will not provide the information to any third parties. And, he assured, “The research is de-identified. We don’t know who the patient is. We only know the condition.”
Kamath also related that Ray Flynn, former U.S. ambassador to the Holy See, mayor of Boston and advocate for Catholic social and economic justice, recently joined the board because his grandson is affected by a rare neurological disease.
Flynn, who also attended the 2011 First International Adult Stem-Cell Conference at the Vatican, told the Register he has been “deeply committed to ethical medical research to help our science and medical community find hope for families with rare undiagnosed diseases.” He has spoken with “hundreds of courageous parents who pray and search for help for their deserving and needy children.”
In this particular case, he explained: “The John Paul II Medical Research Institute is in the forefront of research and on behalf of children and grandchildren like Braeden [his grandson]. We will not stop. … These families and children deserve our untiring support. I am convinced that, with God and science, all things are possible.”
Joseph Pronechen is a Register staff writer.