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Abbot Peter Novecosky, OSB


Abbot Peter Novokosky

Stem cell research

Stem-cell research and the Catholic Church are probably linked in the public mind as at opposite ends of a pole.

However, it is not true. Several past articles in the Prairie Messenger have pointed this out. In the public mind, stem cell research is usually linked to experiments with human embryos. This is indeed opposed by the church, because it involves the destruction of human life.

But the more promising field of adult stem cell research has always been supported by the church, even though often ignored by the public media.

This past week the Vatican hosted its third conference on stem cell research. The April 28 - 30 meeting brought together religious leaders, scientists, physicians, patients, philanthropists and government officials to discuss the healing potential of stem cell therapy. Titled Cellular Horizons: How Science, Technology, Information and Communication Will Impact Society, this was the third conference on regenerative medicine organized in the Vatican. The first was held in 2011 and the second in 2013.

During his address to the participants in 2011, Pope Benedict XVI clearly announced the Catholic Church’s support for adult stem cell research. “It opens up possibilities for healing chronic degenerative illnesses,” he said.

This year’s conference was co-hosted by the Vatican’s Pontifical Council for Culture, headed by Italian Cardinal Gianfranco Ravasi, and the U.S.-based Stem for Life Foundation, a non-profit based in New York originally created to foster treatments based on the use of adult cells.

Dr. Robin Smith, president of the Stem for Life Foundation, said science essentially has already resolved the debate about the promise of adult stem cells compared to embryonic stem cells. Pioneers in the field who initially thought embryos would be more promising, she said, have since realized that it’s not the case. Smith said that today there are more than 5,000 clinical trials with adult stem cells in everything from cancer to heart disease to diabetes, but only 38 - 40 using embryonic cells.

This is a welcome and promising turnaround.

The conference was focusing on how to help young people who are sick and suffering as well as those who are marginalized by society. These are areas of special concern to Pope Francis, who often reflects on the Christian meaning of suffering.

Adult stem cells can be “harvested” from most tissues in the body and have proved more stable than embryonic stem cells. For those doing medical research, this field is rich with promise.