The Vatican Supports Stem Cell Research?

For those who do find embryonic research unethical, research like Fasano's offers the only option for capitalizing on the body's regenerative potential in this way.

Church-Friendly Science

The Vatican has supported adult stem cell research in the past, including funding two international conferences, notes Dr. David Prentice, senior fellow for Life Sciences on the Family Research Council.

The Vatican only supports stem cell research "that is ethical, not harming human life, no matter the source of the cells," he says.

Also, "they are supporting the only type of stem cell research with a proven track record for real treatments -- adult stem cells," says Prentice, noting past successes with the use of bone marrow, umbilical cord, blood, and other adult stem cells in treatment.

Prentice finds the current emphasis on embryonic stem cells problematic because "it places the focus on the cells and their potential flexibility -- which has been almost impossible to control -- and not on the patients and treatments, which is where adult stem cells succeed."

Though at this time these cells can only become other types of intestinal cells, Fasano says that they "show promise" to eventually be versatile -- the way that embryonic cells are.

But some stem cell experts worry that this approach -- especially considering its holy backing -- is implicitly pitting adult stem cells against embryonic cells, which could be bad for research.

"It is important to bear in mind that virtually all leading stem cell biologists believe it will be critical to pursue both embryonic and adult stem cell research in order to make the most rapid progress toward new treatments," says Sean Morrison, director of the Center for Stem Cell Biology at the University of Michigan.

" A defining feature of adult stem cells is that they are restricted to making only the specific tissue in which the adult stem cells reside. Embryonic stem cells are more versatile than adult stem cells. This doesn't make them better, only different," Daley adds. "For many indications the adult stem cell may be favored," but it would ill-advised to "promote adult stem cells as an alternative to embryonic stem cells."

The Vatican Gets High-Tech

Despite concerns over the religious agenda implicit in the Vatican's funding, researchers say that any support of medical research by the church was a heartening development.

The Holy See isn't a newcomer to medical research, however.

The church has provided a surprising service to the medical community since the 1970s through the work of its sisters.

Volunteering as medical subjects on various projects, from Alzheimer's research to studies on the effects of beer consumption, nuns provide an excellent control group because they live similar lifestyles and abstain from sex and drugs.

But while the Vatican may be putting up considerable dough for this research, they won't be providing any sister volunteers for the study.

"Patients with [gastrointestinal disease], celiac's will be first to be studied," Fasano said, "because they have more active intestinal stem cells to work with."

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