Adult stem cell institute undertakes ambitious campaign for cures
By Benjamin Mann
Dr. Alan Moy, MD, Scientific Director of John Paul II Stem Cell Research Institute
Dr. Alan Moy, MD, Scientific Director of John Paul II Stem Cell Research Institute

.- With pro-life ethics and a patient-driven paradigm, the John Paul II Stem Cell Research Institute hopes to save lives and shape the future of medicine.

“Medical research is becoming too expensive and taking too long. It's not transformative enough, or impacting patients at a fast enough rate,” institute founder and director Dr. Alan Moy told CNA on Feb. 10, explaining the motivation behind his ambitious “Collection For Cures” project.

“It's more than just doing ethical research. We had to come up with a new paradigm,” Moy said of his institute's focus on patients and their immediate needs.

Both the Knights of Columbus and the Catholic bishops of Iowa are backing the “Collection For Cures,” which aims to raise $10 million for research into rare diseases, regenerative medicine, and personalized cancer treatments.

After he founded the adult stem cell provider Cellular Engineering Technologies in 2005, Moy became aware of key research areas neglected by both the government and the marketplace. He saw the need for a nonprofit enterprise that could fill these scientific and technological gaps.

In 2006, Moy established the John Paul II Stem Cell Research Institute in Iowa City, as a grassroots effort of Catholic laity and others concerned with the future of ethical biotechnology.

“The goal of the institute is to identify and solve some of the major deficiencies in this country – one of which is the ethical issues surrounding embryonic stem cells,” he noted.

In addition to its pro-life ethical basis, Moy's work stands out in the field for other reasons.

Another distinguishing mark is his interest in treating and curing “orphan diseases.” The term denotes  thousands of serious but rare ailments that fail to attract research dollars, because of the relatively small number of sufferers.

Many of these rare diseases may be treatable with existing FDA-approved drugs. But drug companies have little commercial incentive to discover these applications, particularly when extensive regulatory burdens are factored in to the equation.

Moy, however, wants to use disease-specific, non-embryonic stem cell lines to test the effect of existing drugs and therapies on these unusual ailments. The method saves both money and time over research protocols that would involve testing on animals before moving on to human tissue.

This approach streamlines the research process, often using patients' own cells to investigate possible cures and treatments. In 2010, the National Institutes of Health reported progress toward treatment of the fatal disease Niemann-Pick Type C, based on work with cells from the institute.

Along with its work on “orphan diseases,” the John Paul II Stem Cell Research Institute is also using adult cells to investigate new methods of cancer treatment, and ethical forms of the regenerative possibilities more often associated with stem cell research.

Development director Kim Lehman, who served as president of Iowa Right To Life before taking a full-time position with the institute, told CNA that the goal was “to do research that lands at the bedside of the patient, not just in the petri dish so that an article can be written.”

“That's our objective – to have therapies that are able to reach the patient,” Lehman said.

The program works by soliciting $1,000 yearly pledges from Catholic parishes. Lehman explained that the backing of larger donors allows the institute to direct all of the pledged money directly to research.

Dr. Moy, meanwhile, not only hopes to find new ethical cures and treatments, but also to change the direction of U.S. biotechnology research, by demonstrating the potential that other countries already recognize in adult stem cells.

Globally, he noted, over 90 percent of all stem cell trials involve adult cells rather than those derived from embryos. But only a quarter of these trials are taking place in the U.S., where Moy believes adult stem cells have been marginalized due to “hype” and controversy over embryonic research.

Although the institute is largely focused on the “niche” areas of cancer treatment and rare diseases, the researcher believes that “the outcomes of what we do will have a broader appeal and application” to the fields of medicine and biotechnology in the future.

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