The amazing promise of adult stem cells, and how the Church supports it

A view of St Peters Basilica and Vatican City flag from the roof of a nearby building on June 5 2015 Credit Bohumil Petrik CNA 6 5 15 A view of St. Peter's Basilica and Vatican City flag from the roof of a nearby building on June 5, 2015. | Bohumil Petrik/CNA.

3-D printing of human tissue. Organ transplant therapy for cancer victims that reduces fatalities by 75 percent.

These developments are on the cutting edge of what adult stem cells can do for the medical field. And standing alongside them is the Catholic Church, which promotes ethical forms of research that have yielded the most promising results.

A recent Vatican conference focused specifically on ethical forms of stem cell research drew companies and leading experts to discuss the future of the rapidly developing field.

"For the Church to be working with those who are finding exciting new cures and new therapies is a very natural thing to do," Archbishop Paul Tighe told CNA.

The Ireland-born archbishop, who serves as adjunct secretary of the Pontifical Council for Culture, told CNA that the Catholic Church's concern for the good of human beings means the Church has to be involved in the discussion.

Catholics have an institutional presence in the forms of universities and hospitals. They're also motivated by another inspiration.

Jesus was "above all a healer," he said. "He restored health to people. And that's really the care that people responded to."

The April 28-30 conference at the Vatican was titled "Cellular Horizons: How Science, Technology, Information and Communication Will Impact Society."

The event was co-hosted by the Pontifical Council for Culture and the U.S.-based Stem for Life Foundation, a non-profit based in New York. Since 2011, it is the third regenerative medicine conference that has been organized in the Vatican.

The conference gathers scientists, physicians, patients, religious leaders, philanthropists and government officials to discuss adult stem cell research and its uses and therapies.

Among those at the conference was Dr. Donna Skerrett, M.D., the chief medical officer of the Australia-based medical company Mesoblast Limited. She said her company's stem cell research appears to have aided treatments for complications in organ transplants for cancer victims.

Donated adult stem cells can help a condition called acute graft versus host disease, which otherwise has a fatality rate of over 80 percent among transplant patients. According to Mesoblast's trial research data, Skerrett said, these patients are now surviving at a rate of 80 percent.

She said "we're very encouraged by the positive results and the ongoing trial is in place to keep going."

Keith Murphy, the CEO of the San Diego-based company Organovo, told CNA about his company's technology that creates living human tissues in a technique known as "bioprinting."

"We take cells of many different types and we print them with a 3-D printer to make tissues," he said. "It's a little like making something out of Legos, where you're going to actually place specific blocks of specific colors in a position and you're going to build something up layer by layer. Except that we use cells as a blocks."

"You put different cell types on top of each other or next to each other. You create a pattern, you put that into a computer, and the automated system deposits the cells and creates a living tissue. All the cells will join together and make one living tissue."

Just as 3-D printers use plastic or metal, human tissues can be printed in a way useful for research and, perhaps one day, transplant.

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Murphy's company creates human tissue for drug research.

"We're so reliant on animal models for drugs and drug discovery," he said. Research like his company's could help find new drugs for conditions like fibrosis and Alzheimer's disease, where good animal research models are lacking.

In three or four years, Organovo hopes to start clinical trials for a "liver patch" to help diseased or failing organs. The treatment could extend the waiting period for a person who needs a liver transplant.

While Catholic teaching forbids research on embryonic stem cells – which requires the destruction of humans at the early embryonic stage – it allows and even encourages research on adult stem cells, taken from developed tissue without destroying a human life.

"Most cell therapies these days are not embryonic anymore," Murphy explained. "Not a lot of companies have used embryonic stem cells as therapies, in part just because you stay away from any ethical issues if you go a different route."

Embryonic stem cell treatments tend to rely on injection into the bloodstream, while Organovo's patching technology could allow a large amount of cells to go "exactly where you want them and stay there."

He said adult stem cells have also shown promise in fighting immune diseases, strokes and Crohn's Disease.

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Embryonic stem cells, in contrast, have failed to yield results in any treatment or cure, despite large amounts of government funding.

Archbishop Tighe said that the Church has always tried to ensure that researchers would prioritize adult stem cell research, which avoids the ethical problem of embryonic stem cells.

"This is a form of research that doesn't have that ethical difficulty about it. What's reassuring is that the experts seem to be saying that it's also a more efficient form of research. It's giving more results," he said of the adult stem cells.

He said such research examines "forms of healing that come from within our own God-given bodies." He suggested that the Church's lack of a commercial interest in the research can help it serve as an "honest broker" to ensure good attention.

The archbishop said it is important that the research benefit the whole world and not just address the diseases prioritized in the technologically advanced West. It is also important that financial approaches to the research both respect those who have invested in new medicine and ensure that humanity's benefits can be shared by everyone.

Discoveries about nature's capacity to cure itself might also draw from "some of the traditional wisdom that was embodied in traditional medicine" in the less developed parts of the world, he suggested.

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