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Next month, scientists from around the world will meet to discuss the future of stem cell therapies, and they'll do it at an unlikely place, the Vatican. The Roman Catholic Church known for its hostility to embryonic stem cell research is investing $1 million to promote adult stem cell technology.
As NPR's Barbara Bradley Hagerty reports, some scientists are skeptical of the Vatican's intention.
BARBARA BRADLEY HAGERTY, BYLINE: A few years ago, Father Tomasz Trafny was brainstorming with other Vatican officials about what technologies would shape society, and how the Vatican could have an impact. And it hit them: adult stem cells, which hold the promise of curing the most difficult diseases.
FATHER TOMASZ TRAFNY: They have not only strong potentiality, but also they can change our vision of human beings, and we want to be part of the discussion.
HAGERTY: So, in a rare move, the Vatican decided to collaborate with a private company called NeoStem, to do education and eventually research. Trafny, who is chairs the science and faith department at the Pontifical Council for Culture, says they believe there's a superior alternative to embryonic stem cell research.
TRAFNY: We don't see reason why we have to sacrifice human lives, while we have technologies that do the same without harming anyone and without raising any moral difficulties.
DR. ROBIN SMITH: What people don't realize is for 30 years, we've been using adult stem cells. That's called a bone marrow transplant.
HAGERTY: Robin Smith is CEO of NeoStem.
SMITH: Diseases like leukemia, lymphoma, multiple myeloma, anemia. This is all part of the standard of care.
HAGERTY: Smith says unlike embryonic stem cells - which are still in the early stages of research and are just beginning to be tested to treat diseases - adult stem cells are already working. And she says while embryonic stem cells were thought to be more versatile, they could become any kind of cell for any organ. Recently, scientists have been able to make cells that mimic the versatility of embryonic stem cells without destroying an embryo.
SEAN MORRISON: Well, of course adult stem cell research is really important and very promising for the future of medicine,
HAGERTY: But Sean Morrison suspects the Vatican is using its support to undermine research involving embryos. Morrison, a leading stem cell researcher at the University of Texas Southwestern Medical Center, says at this point, scientists don't know which kinds of stem cells are going to lead to breakthroughs and treatments.
MORRISON: And patients in this country won't take any comfort from the idea that people are trying to close off avenues of research that could potentially help them.
HAGERTY: Morrison is worried that the Catholic Church will run a misleading campaign against embryonic research. He saw that happen in Michigan, when voters were deciding whether to allow such research. He says the Michigan Catholic Conference used fear-mongering tactics, like this TV ad featuring a woman with Parkinson's disease.
(SOUNDBITE OF TV AD)
UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: There's talk about cloning human embryos and killing them for their stem cells. I want to live. But I hope I never live to see that day.
HAGERTY: Morrison says human cloning was never part of the proposal.
MORRISON: Nobody ever had any plans to do that. But it was the kind of language that would frighten people.
HAGERTY: He says other Catholic-funded commercials compared embryonic stem cell research to the Tuskegee experiments. And suggested researchers would mix human DNA with cow eggs to create cow people. Despite this campaign, the proposal passed.
If there were inaccuracies in the commercials, they must be corrected, says Father Tadeusz Pacholczyk. He's a neuroscientist and education director of the National Catholic Bioethics Center. And he says that the spin runs both ways. He says scientists often bury the moral arguments when they tout the promise of embryonic stem cell research.
FATHER TADEUSZ PACHOLCZYK: When we choose to take advantage of the weak for the benefit of the strong, that's the worst kind of science that we can choose to pursue.
HAGERTY: Pacholczyk says, sure, if we spend enough money, embryonic stem cells will probably lead to treatments of disease.
PACHOLCZYK: But the question is not can we make it work. The question is, should we? Isn't this something that is so unethical that all men of good will should be saying, we need to be putting on the brakes here?
HAGERTY: And that's likely to be the underlying message when scientists meet at the Vatican next week.
Barbara Bradley Hagerty, NPR News.
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