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Vatican looks at adult stem cells but still rules out the destruction of embryos

VATICAN CITY (CNS/SE): In rejecting research using embryonic stem cells, the Catholic Church is not trying to impede science or delay treatment that can save lives, Pope Benedict XVI insisted on November 12, during a talk to delegates attending a conference under the theme of Adult Stem Cells: Science and the Future of Man and Culture, held at the Vatican.

The five-day conference, which ended on November 11, was sponsored by the Pontifical Council for Culture together with NeoStem Inc., a United States of America-based company, which does research into and marketing of adult stem-cell therapies.

The pope explained that the Church’s opposition to the use and destruction of embryos flows from the conviction that all human life is sacred and that destroying the most defenceless will never lead to a true benefit for humanity.

“When the end in view is as eminently desirable as the discovery of a cure for degenerative illnesses, it is tempting for scientists and policy-makers to brush aside ethical objections and to press ahead with whatever research seems to offer the prospect of a breakthrough,” Pope Benedict said.

However, “The destruction of even one human life can never be justified in terms of the benefit that it might conceivably bring to another,” he continued.

The 30 speakers and 350 delegates at the conference, including patients who had received stem cell treatment, looked not only at the scientific progress being made with adult stem cells, but also at the cultural, ethical and political issues surrounding the research, its use and its availability.

Pope Benedict told conference participants, “In drawing attention to the needs of the defenceless, the Church thinks not only of the unborn, but also of those without easy access to expensive medical treatment.”

He added, “Illness is no respecter of persons and justice demands that every effort be made to place the fruit of scientific research at the disposal of all who stand to benefit from them, irrespective of their means.”

The pope continued saying that the Church supports research with adult stem cells, which have the possibility of developing into a variety of specialised cells and can alleviate degenerative illnesses, by repairing damaged tissues.

He explained that there is no problem in the use of adult stem cells that are obtained not from fertilising and destroying human embryos, but from “the tissues of an adult organism, from the blood of the umbilical cord at the moment of birth or from foetuses which have died of natural causes.”

The pope concluded that by calling for respect for the ethical limits of biomedical research, the Church does not seek “to impede scientific progress, but on the contrary, to guide it in a direction that is truly fruitful and beneficial to humanity.”

Fides reported that Robin Smith, president of the Stem for Life Foundation and chief executive officer of NeoStem, explained at a press conference held on November 8, that there primary stem cells come in two kinds: embryonic and adult.

The doctor explained that when a stem cell divides, each new cell has the potential either to remain a stem cell or to become another type of cell, with a more specialised function, such as a muscle cell or brain cell.

She continued saying that sources of adult stem cells have been found in the bone marrow, the blood and the liver. This offers the possibility of a renewable source of replacement cells and tissues to treat many diseases.

Smith explained how the use of adult stem cells avoids “the ethical dilemma posed by the use of embryonic stem cells. Adult stem cell research and therapy allows us to advance scientific knowledge while protecting every stage of existence.”

She explained that in the world today, 12.7 million people suffer from cancer, 346 million from diabetes and 583 million from autoimmune diseases. New therapies using adult stem cells can give them hope of improvement and cure.

She said that such treatment has been used successfully in cases of multiple sclerosis and leukaemia.

“In the not too distant future we will be able to use adult stem cells to rebuild damaged tissue and repair organs, such as the heart,” Smith concluded.

Father Tomasz Trafny, the head of the science department of the Pontifical Council for Culture, told the media that the conference was seeking both to publicise the achievements of medical science and to reflect upon them from the perspective of the human sciences.

“We wish to raise some important and sometimes provocative questions,” he said, “such as whether the Hippocratic Oath should be extended to all the life sciences, because today it is not only doctors, but also laboratory scientists who have power to intervene in all phases of human life.”

 ‘Adult stem cell research and therapy allows us to advance scientific knowledge while protecting every stage of existence’ 

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