Tag Archives: Stem Cells – Adult

Vatican Stem Cell Conference – Follow-up news story

Here’s a news story from CBS New York that’s a follow up to the Vatican’s stem cell conference hosted November 9-11 at the Vatican.  Max Gomez (the reporter in the story) was the moderator for the conference so he was there the whole time.  Unfortunately, the MSM is still touting this as some surprising reversal on the part of the Church that now they suddenly allow stem cell research.  This is nothing new!  The church has always stated that stem cell research should be pursued, but in an ethically acceptable manner – this specifically excludes embryo destructive research.

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Vatican Stem Cell Conference – Beginning at the End

Well, I’ve been heckled enough already to post something and I’m tired of editing and writing my proposal which should have been written about a year ago, so what better time than now to start posting about some of the information presented at the recent stem cell conference held at the Vatican?  I think a good starting point is, paradoxically, the ending point of the conference itself – the address delivered by Pope Benedict XVI at the private audience granted the Saturday following the close of the conference.  I’ll be quoting parts, but go here if you wish to read the whole address.  As a conference bonus, I got my picture taken with the Pope at the private audience:

You can't tell, but I'm actually high-fiving the pope here. The hand that I'm high-fiving just obscures the view...

The Holy Father begins with a fundamental and necessary observation – human beings have dignity which is derived from our creation by our common Father in His image and likeness.  It is precisely because of this dignity that the Vatican supports adult stem cell research, but not embryonic stem cell research which involves the destruction of a human being.

But since human beings are endowed with immortal souls and are created in the image and likeness of God, there are dimensions of human existence that lie beyond the limits of what the natural sciences are competent to determine. If these limits are transgressed, there is a serious risk that the unique dignity and inviolability of human life could be subordinated to purely utilitarian considerations. But if instead these limits are duly respected, science can make a truly remarkable contribution to promoting and safeguarding the dignity of man: indeed herein lies its true utility. Man, the agent of scientific research, will sometimes, in his biological nature, form the object of that research. Nevertheless, his transcendent dignity entitles him always to remain the ultimate beneficiary of scientific research and never to be reduced to its instrument.

The Pope then goes on to offer his support for adult stem cell research (not news by any means, but it seems from the media reporting that this is some sort of drastic change in church teaching).

In this sense, 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. 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.

Note the two conditions necessary for ethical stem cell research: that it have due regard for the integral good of the human person AND the common good of society.  If either requirement is not met, then it should not be pursued.  He then goes on to focus on the first requirement, due regard for the human person:

This proviso is most important. The pragmatic mentality that so often influences decision-making in the world today is all too ready to sanction whatever means are available in order to attain the desired end, despite ample evidence of the disastrous consequences of such thinking. When the end in view is one so eminently desirable as the discovery of a cure for degenerative illnesses, it is tempting for scientists and policy-makers to brush aside ethical objections and to press ahead with whatever research seems to offer the prospect of a breakthrough. Those who advocate research on embryonic stem cells in the hope of achieving such a result make the grave mistake of denying the inalienable right to life of all human beings from the moment of conception to natural death.

The utilitarian approach to ethics so prevalent today is entirely incompatible with the dignity of the human person, especially with regards to stem cell research.  And here comes the hinge of the whole talk…

The destruction of even one human life can never be justified in terms of the benefit that it might conceivably bring to another. Yet, in general, no such ethical problems arise when stem cells are taken from the tissues of an adult organism, from the blood of the umbilical cord at the moment of birth, or from fetuses who have died of natural causes.

…It follows that dialogue between science and ethics is of the greatest importance in order to ensure that medical advances are never made at unacceptable human cost. The Church contributes to this dialogue by helping to form consciences in accordance with right reason and in the light of revealed truth. In so doing she seeks, not to impede scientific progress, but on the contrary to guide it in a direction that is truly fruitful and beneficial to humanity.

The Pope then addresses a grave ethical consideration that must be addressed even in adult stem cell research – the just allocation of expensive treatments.  At this point, stem cell treatments would be outrageously expensive and access to these treatments must be made available to all, not only the rich who can afford it.  The pope points to the Catholic health care system as a possible mechanism to distribute these treatments to those who would otherwise be unable to afford them.  This is an ethical consideration which was brought up by one of the invited speakers, Dr. Caplan, that should definitely be kept in mind as this type of research continues and moves into the market.

In drawing attention to the needs of the defenceless, the Church thinks not only of the unborn but also of those without easy access to expensive medical treatment. Illness is no respecter of persons, and justice demands that every effort be made to place the fruits of scientific research at the disposal of all who stand to benefit from them, irrespective of their means. In addition to purely ethical considerations, then, there are issues of a social, economic and political nature that need to be addressed in order to ensure that advances in medical science go hand in hand with just and equitable provision of health-care services. Here the Church is able to offer concrete assistance through her extensive health-care apostolate, active in so many countries across the globe and directed with particular solicitude to the needs of the world’s poor.

So there you have it, the meat of the address.  It’s a good starting point for the rest of the conference as it gives some justification as to why the Church has decided to enter into the fray and actively support adult stem cell research.  Rejecting utilitarian thinking, we must move forward seeking cures for debilitating diseases while respecting the dignity of all human beings.

Extremely Brief Introduction: Adult vs Embryonic Stem cells

I’m off to the Vatican on Monday, so I figured I could take some time for an extremely brief introduction (EBI… perhaps this will be a series here – any opinions?) to adult vs. embryonic stem cells (ESCs) as a precursor to the information that will be presented at the conference.  I’m intentionally excluding a recent stem cell discovery, namely induced pluripotent stem cells (iPSCs), because they blur some of the distinctions I’ll make between adult and embryonic stem cells.  Suffice it to say that iPSCs have (generally) the same properties as ESCs without the moral conundrums since they are derived from adult tissues.

Here’s the 10,000 foot view:

  1. ESCs are pluripotent while adult stem cells are lineage restricted.  This means that ESCs can become any cell type in the body if pushed properly in the right direction, while adult stem cells have a limited number of cell types that they can become.  This is also known as “differentiation capacity” – stem cells that can become many different cells have a high differentiation capacity.  Since embryonic stem cells are taken from a very early stage embryo, these are the same cells which would have gone on to divide and make every single cell in the fully developed human body – thus the “pluripotent” capacity of these cells.
  2. ESCs are “immortal” while adult stem cells undergo “senescence.”  What this means is that ESCs are capable of growing forever in a plastic dish.  They do not ever stop dividing and producing more ESCs.  This is very desirable because the cells are relatively easy to culture and because the therapies that these cells would be used for generally require a large number of cells.  Adult stem cells, on the other hand, undergo senescence, which is to say that they simply stop growing in a culture dish after a certain number of divisions.  This immortal capacity of ESCs leads us to…
  3. Teratoma formation!  The major practical hurdle (as opposed to the moral hurdles) with using ESCs is their uncanny ability to form cancers when injected into living animals.  They form very specific kinds of tumors called teratomas.  During embryonic development, all the cells in the organism divide into one of three “germ layers” that will go on to develop into certain parts of the body.  For example, the “endoderm” layer will make things like your digestive tract, the “mesoderm” will make things like your muscles and bones, and the “ectoderm” layer will make things like your skin and nerves.  These tissues under normal development, of course, are well organized and make a functional organism.  When you inject ESCs into an organism, however, they differentiate into various cells of all three germ layers in a very disorganized fashion and you end up with a chaotic mass of teeth, hair, skin, and even at times primitively developed organs like eyes or even limbs.  Because of the adult stem cells’ limited differentiation capacity and because they are not immortal, this does not happen when they are injected into animals.
  4. The other major practical obstacle with stem cell therapies is immune rejection.  When someone receives an organ transplant (like a heart for example) you must have a “matched” donor.  This means that certain proteins known as human leukocyte antigens (HLA) must be the same or at least similar between the donor and the recipient, otherwise the recipient’s immune system will recognize the new heart as foreign and attack it, leading to rejection.  Embryonic stem cells express HLA antigens and are therefore susceptible to immune rejection.  Because of this, the cells would  have to be from an HLA matched cell line in order to prevent immune rejection, but even with matching, the patient would likely have to be on immunosuppressive drugs for the rest of their lives.  In order to circumvent this problem, many scientists have been attempting “therapeutic cloning” (which in reality is exactly the same thing as regular cloning) in order to harvest ESCs from an embryo that has exactly the same genetic makeup of the person the cells will be used in.  With this approach, there would not be any immune rejection.    Adult stem cells, on the other hand, generally don’t express HLA antigens so there is no chance of immune rejection!  These cells have been used in thousands of patients already without any donor/recipient matching and there is not immune rejection!  Even if immune rejection were to be a problem with adult stem cells, you can isolate the cells from your own body, expand them, and then give them back to yourself thereby circumventing immune rejection.
  5. Finally, ESC production involves the destruction of human persons in order to harvest the stem cells.  Some would say that the embryo is not really a “person,” but there is no scientific reason to conclude otherwise – the topic of a future post.  Adult stem cells, on the other hand, are isolated from adult patients and do not involve their death or destruction.  So long as the patient has given informed consent, there are no moral quandaries with the isolation of adult stem cells.
Ok… so that ended up being a not-so-brief-EBI, but that’s a good overview of the differences between adult and embryonic stem cells.  Each of these will probably be expanded upon in future posts – is there any that you would like to hear about first?

Vatican ponies up for adult stem cell research

In May 2010 (yeah I know, I lag behind a little),  New York based adult stem cell company Neostem announced a ground-breaking collaboration with the Vatican’s Pontifical Council for Culture.   From the press release:

NeoStem’s Stem for Life Foundation, formed to create awareness about the promise of adult stem cells to treat disease, and the Pontifical Council’s Foundation, called STOQ International (Science Theology and the Ontological Quest), will work on a variety of collaborative activities with the goal of advancing scientific research on adult stem cells, exploring their clinical application in the field of regenerative medicine and the cultural relevance of such a fundamental shift in medical treatment options, particularly with regard to the impact on theological and ethical issues.

The Pontifical council has thrown it’s weight behind the initiative with a hefty $1 million donation to the Stem for Life Foundation.  This is not, contrary to some rumors that have been spread around recently, a purchase of stock in the company for profit.  The money will go toward funding educational programs that promote the use of adult stem cell therapies which, unlike embryonic stem cell therapies, have been used clinically for years in hundreds of patients to treat debilitating diseases.

As part of the collaboration, NeoStem and the Pontifical Council will pursue the development of educational programs, publications and academic courses with an interdisciplinary approach for theological and philosophical faculties, including those of bioethics, around the world.

As described in a recent LA Times article, Neostem has a strong interest in the moral and ethical implications of stem cell research; this, among other reasons, attracted the attention of the Pontifical Council:

The partnership is rare, perhaps unprecedented. “It is unusual, ” said Father Tomasz Trafny, the Vatican’s point man on the deal. “Never in history [have] we entered into such [a] collaboration.”

Trafny, a Polish-born priest who heads a science and theology unit within the Pontifical Council for Culture, said the church decided to collaborate with NeoStem for two reasons.

“First, they have a strong interest in … searching for the cultural impact of their own work, which is very unusual,” he said. “Many companies will look at the profit and only at the profit.

“And the second, of course, is that they share the same moral, ethical sensitivity…. Because of that ethical position, we entered into this unique collaboration.”

Perhaps the most exciting program to develop from the collaboration is a three day conference being held November 9-11, 2011 in the Vatican.  The mission of the conference is “To foster the highest levels of scientific research on Adult Stem Cells and to explore the cultural, ethical and human implications of their use.”  It is great to see the Church stepping up to the challenges of modern science and offering a voice of conscience and morality to help guide the discussion!

The conference is by invite only and yours truly has been given the honor of being one of those invited to attend.  In just two short weeks, I’ll be flying to Rome to take part.  I’ll be blogging throughout in an effort to bring the  conference to as many as possible, so if you’re interested in getting updates, subscribe!  I’m also doing some last minute fundraising in order to help pay for travel expenses involved with the conference, so if you’re feeling generous you can send me an email at jcreneau [at] gmail(dot)com.