The Vatican announced on Friday it is to finance research into the potential use of adult stem cells for therapeutic purposes. It has agreed to donate two million Euros to a research project led by the University of Maryland's School of Medicine in the US to investigate the use of intestinal adult stem cells for treating disease.
Professor Alessio Fasano, Director of the University of Maryland's Center for Celiac Research and the scientist leading the project, explained that intestinal stem cells are highly active, adaptable cells, rendering them ideal for this sort of research. The intestine replaces all its cells every couple of days. Moreover, they are pre-programmed to generate all cells necessary for intestinal functioning, for example, mucus cells or epithelial cells. In addition, these cells are relatively easy to harvest from the donor through a routine procedure such as endoscopy.
But it will be years until the project yields clinical treatments. 'We want to harvest them, we want isolate them, we want to make them grow outside our body and see if they are pluripotent', said Professor Fasano, 'If we reach that phase, if we are able to achieve that goal, then our next step is to eventually move to clinical application'.
The Church, which believes an embryo has the same moral status a child or adult human being, is opposed to embryonic stem cell research as it involves the destruction of embryos. However, the Pope supports research using adult stem cells on the grounds that this maintains respect for human life. Embryonic stem cells are valuable for their pluripotence, which is believed to be the key to discovering treatments for degenerative diseases. Although the Church has been criticized for maintaining this position, the Vatican is resolute that there are alternative research avenues - such as working with adult stem cells - that will lead to treatments and ought to be pursued.