The Church is expected to provide financial support to help establish the International Intestinal Stem Cell Consortium, which will kick off its research today in Rome.
No, the church hasn't done an ideological 180. In fact, this new research aims to do away with the need for the embryonic stem cell research that the Vatican has called "gravely immoral."
"We are trying to explore stem cell research aside from embryonic stem cells," says Dr. Alessio Fasano, lead researcher on the project and director of the Center for Celiac Research at the University of Maryland School Medicine. "Of the adult stem cells out there, intestinal cells are the most active that we know of."
Fasano says they pitched this research project to the Vatican in hopes that the church would want to support an alternative to embryonic research.
"Rather than say they don't want [stem cell research], it would be more logical to say 'Is there a better way?'," Fasano says, and he believes that using adult stem cells, harvested from the intestines of the patients themselves, could be that "better way."
Though the church's interest in funding research is a welcome addition, doctors say, some stem cell researchers worry that the Vatican's agenda in this project is to argue against the need for embryonic stem cell research.
"I applaud the Vatican for funding any type of research," says Dr. George Daley, director of the Stem Cell Transplantation Program at Children's Hospital Boston, "but this is another attempt to pit adult stem cells against embryonic [ones]" when the two are used in very different ways and have potential for different conditions.
Embryonic stem cells are prized for their pluripotency -- their ability to transform into many different kinds of cells. Adult stem cells, on the other hand, are not as flexible in that way, Fasano admits, but they nonetheless constitute an important alternative for a number of practical reasons.
If embryonic stem cell therapies were to become commonly used, it would be difficult to maintain a steady supply of unneeded embryos and these cells would have to be stored at great expense, he says.
With intestinal stem cells, the cells are easily harvested from the patient's own supply with a simple procedure and hence they readily available and will not be rejected by the body the way transplanted cells can be, Fasano says.
In the long term, Fasano hopes that through this research, scientists can discover a way to make intestinal cells as versatile as embryonic cells are.
Of course, there's also what some see as the moral advantage of using the body's own cells:
"This is an approach that is morally acceptable but at the same time scientifically and clinically acceptable," he says. "I assume that's the most attractive aspect for the Vatican."
While not wholly opposed to using embryonic stem cells himself, Fasano says that taking stem cells from aborted fetuses or leftover embryos from in vitro fertilization "would not be my first choice."
"If we can help people while respecting the life of the living and the unborn, we're better off -- but if we had no other alternatives, I would not be opposed to using [embryonic cells]."