The Holy See Press Office held a briefing today to present the Second International Vatican Adult Stem Cell Conference, entitled “Regenerative Medicine: A Fundamental Shift in Science & Culture. The conference will take place at the Synod Hall of the Paul VI Audience Hall on April 11-13th.
Presenting at the press briefing were Cardinal Gianfranco Ravasi, president of the Pontifical Council for Culture; Dr. Robin Smith, president of the The Stem for LIfe Foundation and CEO of NeoStem; and Msgr. Tomasz Trafny, head of the Pontifical Council for Culture’s Science and Faith foundation.
Cardinal Ravasi commented on the significance of the conference as a means to show the Church’s role in what he called “a very complex subject.”
Stem cell research has been the center of an ethical debate between proponents of embryonic stem cell research and those of adult stem cell research. Adult stem cells are taken from adult tissue samples as opposed to embryonic stem cells, which are derived from destroyed human embryos. Scientists are discovering that adult stem cells as a more proven method of obtaining stem cells with the ability to regenerate. Once cultivated, the stem cells can be used to regenerate and replenishing dying tissue in the body of a person suffering from a debilitating disease, such as Alzheimer’s or Parkinson’s disease.
Cardinal Ravasi said that the conference hosted by the Vatican will give the Church an opportunity to show that “religion does not solely speak on matters of ethics, but affirms the participation of a positive development” in adult stem cell research. The conference, he continued, would allow the Catholic Church to “not only give a spiritual intervention, but to make present Christ’s public ministry in caring for the sick.”
Cardinal Ravasi concluded his statement by reading a passage of Pope Emeritus’ Benedict XVI address to participants of the last conference on adult stem cell research, held in 2011.
“The potential benefits of adult stem cell research are very considerable, since it opens up possibilities for healing chronic degenerative illnesses by repairing damaged tissue and restoring its capacity for regeneration,” Benedict XVI’s address stated.
“The improvement that such therapies promise would constitute a significant step forward in medical science, bringing fresh hope to sufferers and their families alike. For this reason, the Church naturally offers her encouragement to those who are engaged in conducting and supporting research of this kind, always with the proviso that it be carried out with due regard for the integral good of the human person and the common good of society.”
Translation, Formation, and Dissemination
Msgr. Trafny stated that the course of action of the previous conference focused primarily on three things: understanding knowing, and studying.
“We wanted to understand what consequences the field of regenerative medicine in general and adult stem cells in particular might have upon society and culture,” he said. “It was very clear that the impact and the cultural dynamics of the research cannot be understood without first knowing what it is and it cannot be known unless it is studied. This perspective of constant study and reflection is always valid because research progresses and we don’t want to follow it but rather accompany it.”
However, he continued, the organizers of the 2011 conference saw the need to further expand on the subject, focusing on three other terms: “translation, formation, and dissemination.
“We realized that contemporary science seems increasingly hermetic, impenetrable to the uninitiated and, as such, needs translating, without which it sometimes becomes difficult, if not impossible, to follow its development,” he said.
“So we focused mainly on first asking the speakers to make their knowledge more accessible to those without a scientific background. But immediately after the conference we were committed to identifying possible paths of development and dissemination at a high level. The publication of our book, ‘The Healing Cell’, is part of that process and we are happy that, last year, we were able to present a limited edition of the book to Pope Benedict XVI.”
Msgr. Trafny stressed the need for dialogue and cooperation at various levels in order to overcome the prejudice associated with stem cell research, thus allowing for a more “meaningful impact on culture”.
The head of the Pontifical Council for Culture’s Science and Faith foundation invited journalists to attend the upcoming conference in order to disseminate “the positive, encouraging, and optimistic message of the Church’s support of high quality, ethical research to both scholars—so that they have no doubts of our commitment—as well as to those who are struggling with the pain of degenerative disease and who are awaiting hopeful signs from the research.”
Embryonic vs. Adult Stem Cell Research
Leading researchers and scientists are not the only ones expected to speak at the conference. Several politicians will speak on the debate between embryonic and adult stem cell research. Tommy P. Thompson, the former US Health and Human Services Secretary, is expected to speak on the second day of the conference.
Dr. Robin Smith stressed the importance of the political environment as well as the input of those politicians expected to address the participants of the conference. Dr. Smith stated that as more information regarding adult stem cell research comes in, funding for said research will increase.
“As we continue to see data, there will be more support for having these therapies developed into the clinic,” she said. “It is our hope that people will understand the power of the adult stem cell therapy and desire to fund.”
Many politicians and even celebrities such as Michael J. Fox and the late Christopher Reeves, focused much of their efforts in promoting embryonic stem cell research, despite the the advances made in adult stem cells. ZENIT asked Dr. Smith on her opinion as to why popular and political opinions seem to favor embryonic stem cell research.
“I think 10-15 years ago when the debate […] started with Michael J. Fox and Christopher Reeves, we didn’t know that much about stem cell therapy; we hadn’t seen data. But there is a lot of exciting data today, while its still early, on using stem cells for spinal cord injuries, on using adult stem cells for neuro disorders, for Parkinson’s [disease]. So i think its all about the data and the progress. And people don’t know that and don’t understand,” Dr. Smith said.
“Its a lack of understanding on the progress we’re currently seeing on adult stem cell therapies and I think once people understand that power and that they don’t have to choose between the ethical (between science and faith) that they are going to embrace what is much more progressive that has gone farther and is much more likely to more quickly to get into the clinics.”
Dr. Smith also noted that as progress in scientific studies is made, recognition of the potential of adult stem cell research instead of embryonic stem cells continues to increase.
“The Nobel Prize”, she noted, “was given to an adult stem cell researcher who used to be a proponent of embryonic stem cell who realized now that we don’t have to go down that route. You can take a skin cell and reprogram it into an adult stem cell, thats like an embryonic stem cell. So its progress in science. And we’ll see that people are starting to learn that the future of stem cell therapy is adult stem cells.”