In May the Vatican announced that it was beginning a cooperative venture in adult stem cell (ASC) research with the international biotech firm NeoStem. Although the Catholic Church has patronized the sciences for centuries, this is the first contractual foray into stem cell research with a for-profit secular corporation. NeoStem (listed on the Amex) has pharmaceutical operations in the US and China. The company is launching a development program in adult stem cell therapies in addition to building adult stem cell collection banks in the U.S. and China to allow people to harvest and store their own stem cells as a type of clinical insurance toward future medical need. Its Chinese division, its website says, was established in order “to leverage the country’s progressive stem cell environment” (www.neostem.com). NeoStem’s operations with the Vatican—specifically with the Pontifical Council for Culture (PCC)—will run through the corporation’s non-profit foundation “Stem for Life.” The firm will bring to the relationship its considerable expertise in clinical ASC research; the PCC—extraordinarily—is bringing one million dollars and the “reach” of the Church’s influence. The New York Daily News reported on May 25 that the money will come from two foundations, but the Vatican has not revealed their names .
NeoStem was interesting to the PCC because of its exclusive possession of the license to a form of ASC technology developed at the University of Louisville called VSEL. The acronym stands for Very Small Embryonic-Like stem cells. These cells, found in bone marrow, are functionally related to the undifferentiated cells that made up our bodies when we were embryos; evidently they’ve lain dormant in our tissues through our body’s differentiation and growth. As they are embryo-like, they have many of the regenerative properties of embryonic stem cells, including the capacity to differentiate into many healthy cell types acting as repair cells for damaged, diseased or degenerated tissues. NeoStem has begun collecting populations of VSEL stem cells from patients and freezing (“cryopreserving”) them (the cells, not the patients) in anticipation of future use in regenerative medicine.
On the Vatican (the PCC) side, the project is overseen by Rev. Tomasz Trafney, a 40-year-old polish priest who studied philosophy and theology at the Catholic University of Lublin and at the Lateran in Rome. He directs a very interesting program under the auspices of the PCC called the STOQ Project (“Science Theology and the Ontological Quest”). The project had its origin at the Jubilee of the Scientists convened in Rome by John Paul II in 2000 and provides an ongoing forum for discussion and scholarship on the relationship between philosophy, theology and science. Six Pontifical Roman Universities collaborate in the project: Lateran, Gregorian, St. Thomas (Angelicum), Salesian, Regina Apostolorum and Holy Cross.
NeoStem is apparently involved in two areas of clinical research: with adult stem cells in the US and China and with pharmaceuticals in China, primarily antibiotics (derived, it seems, from morally neutral sources such as enzymes). In its “values” statement (www.neostem.com/values.html), NeoStem makes no mention of a policy against embryo destructive experimentation; but it does repeatedly emphasize its commitment to adult stem cells.
For those interested in the Pontifical Council collaborating with NeoStem, the PCC is a department (“dicastery”) of the Holy See that assists the pope in bringing the Gospel to the world of culture. It promotes dialogue between Christianity and contemporary science in order to dispel the poisonous misconception that faith and science are incompatible. Not only are they not incompatible, they are integrally complementary. John Paul II taught wisely that faith needs science to protect it from falling into superstition and science needs faith to protect it from idolatry.
Presently, the only concrete joint initiative announced by the two institutions is a three day international conference at the Vatican on adult stem cell research: “focus(ing) on medical research presentations and theological and philosophical considerations and implications of scientific achievements” . I emailed several contacts in Rome involved with the STOQ project, but none knew for what purposes the remainder of the million was earmarked. Fr. Trafney has yet to return my email.
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