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]."
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.
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."
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."