The Vatican is pushing for research of adult stem cells as an alternative to the use of embryonic stem cells, which the Catholic Church opposes because it maintains that the destruction of the embryo amounts to the killing of human life.
On Friday, the Catholic Church threw its support and resources behind the study of intestinal adult stem cells by a group of experts led by the University of Maryland School of Medicine. The group wants to explore the potential use of those cells in the treatment of intestinal and possibly other diseases, and is seeking an initial $2.7 million to get the project going, officials said.
"This research protects life," Cardinal Renato Martino said during a meeting with Italian and American scientists and health officials to outline the project. "I want to stress that it doesn't involve embryonic stem cells, where one helps oneself and then throws the embryo away and kills a human life."
The church is opposed to embryonic stem cell research because it involves the destruction of embryos, but it supports the use of adult stem cells, which are found in the bodies of all humans. Human embryonic stem cells are produced from surplus embryos of in vitro fertilization procedures used to help infertile women get pregnant.
Both are prized for their ability to morph into other kinds of cells, offering the possibility of replacing tissue damaged by ailments such as Parkinson's disease.
But adult cells are thought to be less versatile than embryonic ones, and scientists have had more trouble growing adult stem cells in the laboratory than embryonic cells.
Still, adult stem cells could be easier to use if they are taken from patients themselves, because the replacement tissue would have less chance of being rejected.
Martino, a powerful cardinal and retired head of the Pontifical Council for Justice and Peace, told The Associated Press after the meeting that he had "no doubt" that the Vatican would help finance the project through its Rome hospital, Bambin Gesu, and other funding. The exact amount and modalities will be worked out in future meetings with the University of Maryland and other scientists involved in the project.
In 2007, Pope Benedict XVI said the Catholic Church can encourage somatic stem cell research — also known as adult stem cell research — "because of the favorable results obtained through these alternative methods," and more importantly because it respects "the life of the human being at every stage of his or her existence."
During his visit to Washington last year, Benedict underscored his beliefs about stem cells by giving President Barack Obama a copy of a Vatican document on bioethics that hardened the church's opposition to using embryos for stem cell research, cloning and in-vitro fertilization.
Obama has lifted restrictions, imposed by his predecessor President George W. Bush, on federal funding of research using human embryonic stem cells.
The Vatican has drawn criticism for its opposition to embryonic stem cell research. But it insists there are scientifically viable alternatives and that the efforts of the scientific community should go in that direction.
Supporting this university project is part of those efforts.
"Ethically, the rules the Catholic Church promotes are really very simple: That all research be respectful of human life," said Father Bob Gahl, an American professor of Moral Philosophy at the Pontifical University of the Holy Cross. "Nobody should be killed in the process of doing medical research. So this new project falls exactly within the Catholic Church's ethical guidelines."
Dr. George Daley, a stem cell expert at Children's Hospital in Boston and past president of the International Society for Stem Cell Research, said both adult and embryonic stem cells may prove useful for treating different diseases.
"I applaud the Vatican for being interested in supporting biomedical research," Daley said Friday, "but I can't help but think there's an agenda."
He called intestinal stem cells "a very exciting area of basic research" but said therapeutic uses are only speculative at this point.
Researchers involved in the Vatican-backed project are convinced that intestinal stem cells — a relatively new field —hold promise and want to assess their potential for therapeutic use.
"We want to harvest them, we want to isolate them, we want to make them grow outside our body," and transform them into cells of any kind, said Alessio Fasano, the scientist leading the project and the director of the University of Maryland's Center for Celiac Research.
"If we reach that phase, if we are able to achieve that goal, then our next step is to eventually move to clinical application," Fasano told the AP before Friday's announcement.
Intestinal stem cells have certain features that make them appealing for this kind of research, Fasano said.
They are very active cells — the intestine replenishes all its cells every few days — and they are intrinsically flexible — already programmed to generate all the various kinds of cells such as mucus cells or epithelial cells present in the highly complex organ. Furthermore, harvesting them can be done through a routine medical procedure, Fasano noted.
Fasano said his team hopes to decide about the feasibility of the project within the next two to three years. He said the network of experts, expected to be around 40 people, would work at their respective facilities, sharing information and the workload to speed up the process.