Vatican backs adult stem cell research
Offers resources for an alternative to use of embryos
ROME — The Vatican is pushing for research on adult stem cells as an alternative to the use of embryonic stem cells, which the Catholic Church opposes because it maintains that the destruction of the embryo amounts to the killing of human life.
Yesterday, the church threw its support and resources behind the study of intestinal adult stem cells by a group of scientists led by the University of Maryland School of Medicine. The group wants to explore the potential use of those cells in the treatment of intestinal and possibly other diseases, and is seeking an initial $2.7 million to get the project going, officials said.
“This research protects life,’’ Cardinal Renato Martino said during a meeting with Italian and American scientists and health officials to outline the project. “I want to stress that it doesn’t involve embryonic stem cells, where one helps oneself and then throws the embryo away and kills a human life.’’
Adult stem cells are found in the bodies of all humans. Human embryonic stem cells are produced from surplus embryos of in vitro fertilization procedures used to help infertile women get pregnant.
Both are prized for their ability to morph into other kinds of cells, offering the possibility of replacing tissue damaged by ailments such as Parkinson’s disease.
But adult cells are thought to be less versatile than embryonic ones, and scientists have had more trouble growing adult stem cells in the laboratory than embryonic cells.
Still, adult stem cells could be easier to use for therapeutic purposes if they are taken from patients themselves, because the replacement tissue would have less chance of being rejected.
Martino, a powerful cardinal and retired head of the Pontifical Council for Justice and Peace, said after the meeting that he had “no doubt’’ that the Vatican would help finance the project through its Rome hospital, Bambin Gesu, and other funding. The exact amount and modalities will be worked out in future meetings with the University of Maryland and other scientists involved in the project.
In 2007, Pope Benedict XVI said the Catholic Church can encourage somatic stem cell research — also known as adult stem cell research — “because of the favorable results obtained through these alternative methods,’’ and more importantly because it respects “the life of the human being at every stage of his or her existence.’’
During a visit with President Obama at the Vatican last year, Benedict underscored his beliefs about stem cells by giving the president a copy of a Vatican document on bioethics that hardened the church’s opposition to using embryos for stem cell research, cloning, and in-vitro fertilization. Obama has lifted restrictions, imposed by his predecessor George W. Bush, on federal funding of research using human embryonic stem cells.