Breaking down barriers to advance stem cell therapies – the view from the Vatican conference

Perry and the Pope

Pope Francis meets Katy Perry at the Unite to Cure conference at the Vatican

All hands were on deck at the “Unite to Cure” conference, organized by the Cura Foundation and the Vatican Pontifical Council,  and held at the Vatican on April 26-28. Religious leaders, scientists, physicians, philanthropists, industry leaders, government, academic leaders and members of the entertainment industry gathered to discuss how to improve human health and to increase access to relief of suffering for the under-served around the world.

Pope Francis spoke of “the great strides made by scientific research in discovering and making available new cures” but stressed that science also needs to have “an increased awareness of our ethical responsibility towards humanity and the environment in which we live.”

He talked of the importance of addressing the needs of children and young people, of helping the marginalized and those with rare, autoimmune and neurodegenerative diseases. He said:

“The problem of human suffering challenges us to create new means of interaction between individuals and institutions, breaking down barriers and working together to enhance patient care.”

So, it was appropriate that breaking down barriers and improving collaboration was the theme of a panel discussion featuring CIRM’s President and CEO, Maria Millan. She had been invited to attend the conference and participate on a panel focusing on “Public Private Partnerships to Accelerate Discoveries”.

As Dr. Millan put it, “Collaboration, communication, and alignment” is the winning formula for public/private partnerships.

She highlighted how CIRM exemplifies this new approach, how everything we do is focused on accelerating the field and that means partnering with the National Institutes of Health and the Food and Drug Administration to create new regulatory models. It also means working with scientists every step of the way; helping them prepare the best possible application for CIRM funding and, if they are approved, giving them the support they need to help them succeed.

It was a wide ranging, thoughtful, engaging conversation with David J. Mazzo, PhD, President & CEO of Caladrius Biosciences and David  Pearce, PhD, Executive VP for Research at Sanford Health. You can watch the discussion here.

People may find it surprising that government agencies, academic researchers and private companies can all collaborate effectively.  It is absolutely critical to do so in order to rapidly and safely advance transformative stem cell, gene and regenerative medicine to patients with unmet medical needs.  Pope Francis and the Pontifical Council at the Vatican certainly believe that collaboration is essential and the “Unite to Cure” Conference was a powerful demonstration of how important it is to work together for the future of humanity.

CIRM President/CEO Presenting at Vatican Conference Targeting Cures for Deadly Diseases

It’s not often you get invited to a meeting of some of the leading scientists, ethicists, philosophers and faith leaders in the world so when the call comes in it’s an easy one to answer. Particularly when the call is from the Vatican.

View of Basilica di San Pietro in Vatican, Rome, Italy

Maria T. Millan, MD, President and CEO of the California Institute for Regenerative Medicine (CIRM), will be part of a panel discussion at the Fourth International Vatican Conference at Vatican City, Rome. The conference, titled: Unite To Cure: How Science, Technology and 21st Century Medicine Will Impact Culture and Society, runs from April 26-28 in Rome.


Maria T. Millan, MD

“It is a tremendous honor to be part of this historic event,” says Dr. Millan. “CIRM funds the science and development of transformative cell and gene therapies for patients with unmet medical needs so it will be important to be part of the global conversation during such a propitious time in the history of medicine.”

“We’re thrilled to bring together the world’s best scientists, doctors, ethicists and leaders of faith, business, government and philanthropy to this extraordinary global event at The Vatican,” says Dr. Robin Smith, President of The Cura Foundation, the event organizer in partnership with the Vatican. “It’s a Davos for health care, and over the course of three days we will rally the world around a very simple idea — that tomorrow’s cures are just around the corner, and by uniting together and understanding the challenges that lie ahead, we can speed the delivery of cures and foster great hope for patients all over the world suffering from deadly diseases and dangerous medical conditions.”

Dr. Millan will be part of a panel discussion titled, Public Private Partnerships to Accelerate Discoveries. The panel will be moderated by award-winning medical journalist Max Gomez, PhD., and will include David Mazzo, PhD, CEO of Caladrius Biosciences, and David Pearce, PhD, the Executive VP for Research at Sanford Health.

The topic for this panel is particularly well suited for CIRM, an agency that is devoted to accelerating stem cell treatments to patients with unmet medical needs. CIRM has funded over 800 projects and over 45 novel stem cell and regenerative medicine clinical trials. It delivers a predictable and expedited funding mechanism, an active partnership and advisory role, strategic infrastructure, involvement of key opinion leaders and patient representatives and an industry alliance program, all to increase the chances of success for its programs and for the patients who would benefit.

To learn more about Unite To Cure: The Fourth International Vatican Conference, please visit: Or, you can follow the event on Twitter @CuraFdn and on Facebook at, and join the conversation with #UnitetoCure.

The First International Vatican Adult Stem Cell Conference: A Gound-Breaking Achievement

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.

John Wagner