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Opinion: Vatican push for adult stem cells can't neglect good science

VATICAN CITY -- I had a front-row seat this week for one of the pressing ethical discussions of our time: Can religion and science ever get along? Specifically, can stem cell research proceed with the blessing of religion?

In an unprecedented and truly startling move, the Catholic Church has answered yes. The Vatican this week reiterated that it has entered into an unusual partnership aimed at boosting use of adult stem cells to treat disease, rather than focusing on research into embryonic stem cells.

Church leaders explicitly endorsed the work of New York-based NeoStem Inc. as part of the Vatican’s recently announced $1 million, five-year initiative to direct research toward adult stem cell therapies and away from embryonic stem cell use.

But do cardinals in red caps and men in collars trained in canon law and biblical study know best about how scientists should seek to find cures for damaged hearts, severed spinal cords, arthritic knees, lupus, peripheral artery disease and diabetes?

Will the scientific or investment community in America or around the world take the suggestions of the pious and devout -- but scientifically rather undistinguished -- seriously?

The leaders of the church have made it clear time and again that they oppose the destruction of embryos as a way to get stem cells.  No news there. In fact, the scientific status of embryonic stem cell research never got a spot in the three-day conference, which ended Saturday with an audience with the Pope. 

The point of this meeting, at which I was an invited speaker, was partly to reemphasize Rome’s implacable opposition to any research involving embryo destruction.

The meeting I went to was sponsored by the Pontifical Academy for Culture, one of a number of advisory groups that meet regularly inside the Vatican.  There, church leaders sought to soften a tough ethical spot: intractable opposition to the use of embryonic stem cells that could hold cures for a long list of awful diseases.

The point of the meeting was to crack the dilemma by making it clear to the world that the Vatican is aware of the need to find solutions. 

But the Vatican’s earnest desire to offer hope without compromising a core moral stance led to way too much enthusiasm about the prospects for current research in adult stem cell research.

While some top-tier science was presented at the conference, there was too much time given to claims of cure that had little to support them but patient testimonials, small studies with no long-term follow-up, and, to be blunt, some science that has nothing but the backing of a single very optimistic scientist looking to attract a grant or an investor.

The church is not yet very good at picking the wheat out of the biomedical chaff. In its enthusiasm to be seen as wanting to help people worldwide suffering from chronic and miserable incurable diseases, the Vatican is far too enamored of every claim of cure involving non-embryonic stem cells. 

Adult stem cell research holds promise for many diseases. But the Vatican needs to realize that it has its own pitfalls, including a lack of adequate international regulatory oversight, companies rushing to hype their work to attract investment, an absence of standardized registries to evaluate claims of cure, and not a few outright scammers looking to make a quick buck off of the desperate. 

Pushing for adult stem cell research means pushing for it to be ethical in all regards, not just because no embryos are destroyed.

It remains to be seen how this campaign for moral stem cell science plays out. Many researchers pursuing embryonic and cloned stem cell research will pay no attention to the church’s message. Politicians representing nations with large numbers of Catholic voters are likely to press harder for funding for adult stem cell work.

My own view is that the Vatican still has a ways to go in distinguishing sound science from hype and insisting on good science as the basis for what the church wants to promote as moral.

Arthur Caplan, Ph.D., is director of the Center for Bioethics at the University of Pennsylvania.

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