John Wagner is Professor and Director of the Division of Pediatric Blood and Marrow Transplantation at the University of Minnesota Medical School. He performed the first umbilical cord blood transplant to treat a child with leukemia and pioneered the use of stem cells in the treatment of the skin disease epidermolysis bullosa. He is also a member of CIRM’s standards and grants working groups.
It was a fascinating week in Rome where I was one of several invited speakers attending the Vatican sponsored: “Adult Stem Cells: Science and the Future of Man and Culture.”
Overall, I was personally ‘moved’ by the uniqueness of this event that mixed science and history. Regardless of anyone’s personal religious beliefs, the Catholic Church does have an undeniable place in the history of western civilization with a legitimate obligation at least for Catholics and Catholic institutions around the world to try to understand the broader impact of science that no longer simply observes nature but now has the capacity to alter it.
My specific role was to highlight some of the ‘lessons learned’ from ‘our’ collective experiences with blood-forming stem cells, the only stem cell therapeutic with proven regenerative medicine potential. Those lessons learned include best practices in ethical conduct in high-risk clinical experimentation in vulnerable populations, the obstacle of the immune response and the need for earlier considerations on issues of access to new technologies and public education on reasonable expectations for phase I studies.
In addition to my contribution, there were a host of other presentations focusing on public confusion on what stem cells are and the public’s understanding of the regenerative capacity of embryonic versus adult stem cells, the impact of politics particularly in the United States, sources and types of adult stem cells, technological advancements in organ and tissue regeneration, regulatory requirements for stem cell therapeutic manufacture from industry’s perspective, and clinical applications in neurological, cardiovascular, autoimmune diseases. These talks were intermixed with moving testimonials from patients who are looking to stem cells as a source of future therapies. Intriguingly, the Conference was also about ‘building bridges’ between the Church and scientists to enhance bioethical-humanistic-cultural considerations of stem cell research and develop strategies for educating the present and future generations of students in the life sciences.
As would be expected, the meeting had a strong focus on the promise of adult stem cells with relative silence on the impact of embryonic stem cells. Statements by others on the ethics of stem cell research were also predictable—“the destruction of the human embryo is never justifiable regardless of any claim to therapeutic benefit“(although it was often stated that any benefit from embryonic stem cells has yet to be demonstrated).
But, there were indeed surprises as well: 1) the Church voiced its desire to open a dialogue with scientists and educators in the life sciences, and 2) the Church announced its unprecedented financial investment into promoting adult stem cells and their role in regenerative medicine.
While we might have wished for more detail on how the Church planned to build such bridges and open dialogue with scientists, the intent was seemingly sincere. In fact the Church had already identified ‘partners’ whose work would itself promote adult stem cell research including neural stem cells derived from recently aborted fetuses, which are already in clinical trials for several conditions. The Church also clarified that its financial investments were principally focused on public education, such as through the Stem For Life Foundation, the philanthropic arm of NeoStem, Inc. which co-sponsored the Conference.
Despite the fact that my views might differ from those of some of the presenters, I was amazed by the uniqueness of this event that placed the science of today into an historical context. Consider the venue and the associated events that included a dinner reception at the Casina Pio IV (the Vatican Academy of Science), a concert at the Basilica of St John Lateran, and an audience with Pope Benedict XVI. At the end of the day, I had the feeling that perhaps this self-proclaimed ‘ground breaking’ achievement was more than self-aggrandizement. Perhaps, the Church indeed strived to promote dialogue and build bridges with those deeply involved in the science of stem cells and its clinical translation into meaningful therapeutics. For sure, the moral status of the embryo may be front and center in terms of the ethical issues, but there are other issues as well that need further discussion regardless of the stem cell source. The creation of such a dialogue on the broader philosophical and humanistic aspects of science in general and stem cell research in particular must be a good thing.
If we agree that the goal of science is the discovery of new knowledge and truth—and en-light-enment—we must also acknowledge that there are risks, such as those realized with the nuclear experiments of the last century. And, recall in Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein: A Modern Prometheus, that the not too distant cousin of light is fire. So, perhaps, it is not unreasonable to listen openly and dialogue with others who may have opposing but reasoned views, with the understanding that you need not completely accept all that others speak. From there new knowledge and a higher level of discourse may take place. If successful, that, in and of itself, would be a ‘ground breaking’ achievement.