By Kathleen Masterson
The Catholic church has been in the news a good deal lately, and let's just say it hasn't been positive.
But here's some news the Vatican is proud to announce: It's donating roughly $3 million to fund a research initiative working to find a new way to develop multi-purpose stems cells -- without using embryonic cells.
The project -- a collaboration between the University of Maryland School of Medicine and the Italian equivalent of the National Institutes of Health -- will attempt to coax intestinal stem cells (found in everyone's gut) to turn into multi-potent stem cells. These are cells that, like embryonic stem cells, have the potential to develop into any kind of cell in the body. It's already been done using adult skin cells, though using them to treat major diseases is likely a ways off.
"Our goal is to make these (intestinal stem) cells become cells of any kind in our body," says Dr. Alessio Fasano, a professor of pediatrics, medicine and physiology at the University of Maryland School of Medicine who is coordinating the new consortium.
The Catholic Church has long opposed embryonic stem cell research, saying it needlessly destroys embryos and has little value. It has butted heads with the Obama Administration repeatedly over the issue.
In the scheme of things, the $3 million the Church has pledged for the adult stem cell research project is a piddly amount. In California alone voters approved spending $300 million a year for stem-cell research in 2007 and NIH is planning to spend $1.07 billion on it this year. But, the purpose of this grant is to explore if using intestinal stem cells could really work.
Why intestinal stem cells? Well, unlike skin cells, says Fasano, "intestinal cells already make different kinds of cells. They make epithelial cells -- cells that make mucous, endocrine cells that make hormones ... so they already have the capability to make many different kinds of cells. What we'd like to do is to expand their multi-potency to become any human cell. That's the goal."
Up until now, little research has been done on intestinal stem cells' potential, says Fasano, largely because the technology to identify the stem cells -- and distinguish them from the millions of other intestinal cells -- has only been around a few years.
But even if Fasano and the consortium of scientists are able to successfully extract the stem cells from the gut and get them to live in the lab, the team still faces the huge challenge of coaxing cells into a state in which they would behave like embryonic stem cells.
And there's no guarantee that will happen.