Vatican stem cell endeavor with US company in full swing
By Marianne Medlin
Dr. Robin L. Smith and Fr. Tomasz Trafny
Dr. Robin L. Smith and Fr. Tomasz Trafny

.- The Vatican's adult stem cell venture with a U.S. biopharmecutical firm continues to gain momentum since the partnership between the two was announced in June.

The move shows how “the Catholic Church is not against science, that we support ethically acceptable research, and that we want to foster this knowledge and spread it globally,” Father Tomaz Trafny of the Vatican’s Council for Culture told CNA on Oct. 12.

“We also want people to understand that in joining forces, we can really bring benefit to humanity,” he said, noting that the endeavor “is the first time we've entered into so deep a collaboration with an outside company.”

On June 16, the Vatican announced before the global media in Rome that it was partnering with  NeoStem, a public firm pioneering new medical research with adult stem cells.

Stem cells are the body’s master cells from which all of the body’s 200-plus types of tissue ultimately grow. Their versatility allows for potential in providing replacement tissue to treat countless illnesses and disorders.

The Catholic Church approves of stem cell research but disapproves of those cells being drawn from human embryos—a process that involves their destruction.

Fr. Trafny explained that the new venture is creating a hub for scientists, academics, policy makers and Church leaders to discuss moral and ethical advancements in bio-medicine.

“All of these groups very often work and act separately and in isolation and bringing them together to create a network of collaboration and hotspots for exchanging their opinions, experiences, and knowledge,” he said.

Dr. Robin Smith, CEO of NeoStem, added that the adult stem cell research field is growing rapidly—from around 500 clinical trials in the U.S. five years ago to over 4,000 today.

“Over the last five years we've seen an incredible emergence of research and clinical trials and data showing that our natural body's repair mechanisms can be used and harnessed,” Smith told CNA in an Oct. 12 interview.

For example, she said, if a patient has an acute heart attack, it means that certain cells aren't able to release enough into the body's circulating system to repair the heart muscle.

“But if you can take these cells and repair them properly and inject them back in, what kind of impact can they have to regenerate the tissue?”

Smith said that NeoStem began five years ago as collection and storage business or “bio-insurance” firm—“you and I as adults having our stem cells collected today and stored for the future in case they are needed for things like leukemia or lymphoma,” she explained. 
The company has since expanded to manufacturing cell therapies as well as a generic pharmaceutical endeavor that generates revenue. This combination has made NeoStem a “leader” in the field “as technology continues to advance and other applications emerge using cell therapy for treating diseases,” Smith said. 

“The more people understand the benefits of adult stem cells—the real research, the data, where this can go with regenerative medicine with immunological diseases,” she said, “the more interested people will be in using adult stem cells.”

Smith noted that over 70 diseases are currently being treated with adult stem cells, versus embryonic stem cells, which have no current therapies despite the continual media coverage they garner.

On Oct. 5, researchers made headlines after cloning human embryos with an extra set of chromosomes for potential stem cell harvesting. Catholic scientists and bio-ethicists decried the experiment, saying it did little to advance a medical breakthrough and violated human life.

“Controversy makes news, so there's a lot of noise about it,” Smith said, “but I think if you really look at the numbers of funded studies and the advancements, it's not in embryonic stem cells it's in adult stem cells.”

Fr. Trafny agreed, noting that “sensational topics receive more visibility from media” and suggesting that part of the problem may be “a question that we should address to journalists.”

To some extent, media hype “is good in that people discuss the issue,” he said. “It means that there is sensitivity among people and they are questioning if it is right or wrong.”

Ultimately, however, embryonic stem cell research “is unacceptable from a moral point of view and from the perspective of Catholic teaching,” Fr. Trafny underscored. 

“This is why we are very much in support of adult stem cell research and of course we want to look at cultural implications and consequences this kind of research and advancement in life science will bring to society.”

Both Fr. Trafny and Smith said that next step for the venture is a major conference at the Vatican that will be held Nov. 9-11 and will touch on the topic of the cultural consequences of regenerative medicine.

“Hopefully this conference will be the beginning of much more education so people can get excited about the future of adult stem cells and realize that they can be supportive of their faith and science,” Fr. Trafny said.

Smith added that NeoStem has been “so lucky to have the support and collaboration of the Catholic Church and their following to help educate people.”

“We can get behind improving human suffering and advance not only longevity of life but the health that people have—their ability to be viable in society, to recover from diseases,” she said, “which they have as their body's own natural repair mechanisms.”

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