By RON HAMEL
VATICAN CITY — Over 200 scientists, physicians, clergy, theologians, ethicists, educators and policy makers met at the Vatican Nov. 9-11 for the first international Vatican conference on the use and promise of adult stem cells in medical treatment.
Sponsored by the Pontifical Council for Culture and the biopharmaceutical company NeoStem, the conference sought to promote and accelerate clinical research in the use of adult stem cells in medicine and to broaden the general public's understanding of its applications and promise.
Many scientists believe adult stem cell research holds the potential to reverse chronic degenerative illnesses by repairingdamaged tissue and restoring the body's capacity for regeneration. Along with a window on the state of the science, the meeting provided a forum for discussion of the ethical, philosophical and educational implications of regenerative medicine.
While the Catholic Church has an ethical prohibition against the use of embryonic stem cells because they are harvested in a process that destroys a human embryo, it has embraced the use of adult stem cells in medical treatment. In spring 2010, the Vatican announced it had entered an unprecedented and historic partnership with NeoStem's nonprofit foundation in order to promote scientific and public knowledge of adult stem cell therapies. NeoStem, a publicly traded company based in New York, has adult stem cell operations in the U.S. and China, as well as an investment in a generic drugmaker in China.
The Vatican conference, "Adult Stem Cells: Science and the Future of Man and Culture," was the first public event resulting from the partnership between the Catholic Church and the biopharmaceutical company. A recurring theme among speakers and conference participants alike was the meeting's importance as testimony to the church's appreciation of science and its ability to work hand-in-hand with science in pursuit of common goals.
Adult stem cells have been used in bone marrow transplants to treat certain blood cancers for over 40 years, but, according to the Pontifical Council for Culture and NeoStem, it's only been recently that science has made progress toward developing therapies that would be capable of growing replacement heart muscle after a heart attack or address crippling autoimmune disorders and orthopedic ailments.
Promise versus reality
The first half of the three-day Vatican conference was largely devoted to science and included presentations on the sources, types and characteristics of adult stem cells; and the use of these various stem cells to treat hematologic disorders, cardiovascular and autoimmune diseases, and in organ and tissue regeneration.
Presenters reported on current research, clinical trials and challenges to moving forward. Three patients who have benefited from therapeutic clinical trials spoke to the conference about how the experimental therapies had improved their quality of life. One of the patients was a woman diagnosed at age 38 with systemic scleroderma, a devastating, potentially fatal autoimmune disorder. After a transplant using her own stem cells, she said she has experienced a remarkable recovery with very few residual effects from the scleroderma.
In general, presenting scientists expressed cautious optimism about the potential for adult stem cells to provide therapies for a wide range of diseases and injuries.
Dr. Robin Smith, NeoStem's chairman and chief executive, was enthusiastic about progress to date toward those goals. She referred to adult stem cell research as an "emerging paradigm shift" in medicine, one that would turn patients' own bodies into a source of effective treatments for their own diseases or disabilities. "These stem cells in our bodies are capable of serving as a repair mechanism," she said. "They are the building blocks of regenerative medicine. Already many advancements are being seen around the world in clinical trials employing various types of adult stem cells. These trials number in the thousands," she said.
University of Pennsylvania bioethicist Arthur Caplan identified several ethical concerns associated with adult stem cell research, in particular the responsibility to provide accurate information about the status of adult stem cell therapies and better oversight of clinical trials.
Caplan expressed concern about the hype around the promise of adult stem cells, which he said leads to false hopes for patients. He lambasted the direct-to-consumer advertising of very questionable therapies, come-ons that exploit vulnerable individuals. He called for the tracking and reporting of adverse events in therapeutic trials.
Fr. Kevin FitzGerald, SJ, who holds a chair in Catholic health care ethics at Georgetown University, said the goal of biomedical research ought to be improving human well-being and creating benefits for needy and vulnerable patients. However, the quest for breakthrough biomedical treatments should not be allowed to crowd out funding for preventive care and public health initiatives that are of proven benefit to patients, he said.
Conference co-organizer, Fr. Tomasz Trafny, director of the Science and Faith Department of the Pontifical Council for Culture and chair of its foundation, Science, Theology and the Ontological Quest International, spoke of the need for building bridges and establishing good communication, especially between the church and the medical and scientific communities. He called for collaboration among various entities involved in adult stem cell research including public companies; philanthropic organizations; universities and research centers; private investors; and religious, government and international organizations.
The Catholic Church, because of its mission to serve the vulnerable, is present to these endeavors and has much to offer, he said. For example, the church can search for answers to ethical, theological and philosophical questions and provide tools for the education of clergy and the faithful.
The conference concluded with an audience with Pope Benedict XVI in the Apostolic Palace's Clementine Hall. In his address the pope said adult stem cell research holds the promise of curing degenerative diseases, thus bringing "fresh hope to sufferers and their families alike."
The church supports and encourages such research provided it is carried out with attention to the "integral good of the human person and the common good of society," he said. A transcendent human dignity entitles people "always to remain the ultimate beneficiary of scientific research and never to be reduced to its instrument."
The pope went on to say that "dialogue between science and ethics is of the greatest importance in order to ensure that medical advances are never made at unacceptable human cost," such as with embryonic stem cell research. The church, he said, plays a critical role in this dialogue by helping to properly form consciences.
The pope concluded by affirming the importance of justice in this endeavor. "Justice," he said, "demands that every effort be made to place the fruits of scientific research at the disposal of all who stand to benefit from them, irrespective of their means. In addition to purely ethical considerations, then, there are issues of a social, economic and political nature that need to be addressed in order to ensure that advances in medical science go hand-in-hand with just and equitable provision of health care services."
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