On Vatican’s stem cell conference

by Alexey Bersenev on April 17, 2013 · 3 comments

in under discussion

Last week, stem cell meeting was held in Vatican. Scientific conference was organized and held by a Church! An information about this meeting, a mass media buzz, a reporting – all were misleading. In this post I’ll try to debunk some claims and give more critical view of this event. My intent is to facilitate open discussion. I’m not trying to insult and tease religious people.

Boycott of the previous meeting
The first Vatican’s stem cell meeting took place in 2011, but second was suddenly canceled last year. Apparently, some invited embryonic stem cell researchers, boycotted a conference:

In 2012, the Vatican’s Pontifical Academy for Life was forced to cancel a conference on “Responsible Stem Cells Research.” While the cancellation was officially caused by low registration, some members of the academy had complained that the lineup included researchers who had worked with embryonic stem cells, and called for a boycott of the conference.

There were probably more reasons for this cancellation, but I understand these scientists and I’d support a boycott. I think, their reasoning could be represented by this quote:

“Of course adult stem cell research is really important and very promising for the future of medicine,” Sean Morrison says.
But not if the Vatican is using its support to undermine research using embryos, which is what he suspects it is doing.
Morrison is worried that the Catholic Church will run a misleading campaign against embryonic research.

By the way, what reaction Vatican would expected from stem cell researchers? A Catholic Church is an organization  with many centuries history of antagonism against the science!

Embryonic versus adult
It seem like for the 3rd meeting, Vatican decided to “sanitize” a list of speakers, excluding major figures from “embryonic stem cell world”.

So, the Vatican is trying to tell us that there are good stem cells (adult) and bad stem cells (embryonic), good scientists (moral) and bad scientists (baby killers). Good ones are blessed! The use of good cells is approved by Jesus! But who are they to give us a guidance? What is the authority of Vatican to draw the line for scientists and general (non-catholic) public? With all its history, Vatican has a zero authority for ethics and morality to me.  And what about the cells, which don’t fit in “embryonic” or “adult” category – neonatal stem cells, derived from umbilical cord and cord blood, amniotic fluid stem cells, fetal stem cells, derived from aborted fetuses? There is a tremendous progress with these types of stem cells and a lot of trials under way. How it’s ethical and moral to prohibit any kind of research, associated with potential finding a cure? To me, it’s deeply immoral and unethical.

Here I’d like to cite John Gurdon, who was (bravely) invited by Vatican as keynote speaker. In interview for Vatican Radio, he said:

The trouble is adults stem cells do have limited capacity both – to proliferate and to form different kinds of cell types.

Q: How important is it to respect the ethical dimensions of this work
A: That’s ‘s controversial. My own position is I’m very liberal and I don’t actually believe that there are any ethical issues. The Roman Catholic Church is very sensitive to it, but it depends on your position.

I also believe that there are no ethical issues. All of them were created by a church and maybe irrelevant in secular world.

So, the truth is that we don’t have a debate “adult versus embryonic” in scientific world. Scientists think that ANY kind of stem cell research is very important!

Adults stem cell propaganda machine
To spread the “message of truth” about blessed adult stem cells Vatican has created a Stem For Life Foundation. This mediator for public outreach is a charity organization, which collect money for adult stem cell research in a name of religion. The Foundation has a scientific advisory board, filled by brilliant and well respected adult stem cell researchers and clinicians. The Foundation produces the videos and publishes books. I have no problem with spreading information about achievements in adult stem cells. In fact, I do it myself daily. But I have a big problem when (1) this type of information spread by religious institute and (2)  this information is biased, distorted and does not represent the whole picture. Therefore, I’d boldly call it well designed campaign or propaganda.

Goals of conference and claims
Let’s look at goals of Vatican conference:

To discuss and understand the importance of scientific advancements in the paradigm shift toward regenerative medicine, with a particular focus on adult stem cell therapies and the interconnections between research, faith, ethics and culture.

So, they are not willing to discuss and appreciate importance and achievements of other than “adult” types of stem cell research. But all types of stem cell research are interconnected and should be appreciated as a whole! Would discovery of “ethical” iPS even happen if we don’t learn pluripotency genes from embryonic stem cells?

Foster an open dialogue amongst researchers, physicians, philanthropists, faith leaders and policy-makers…

But how much this dialogue was really open? Was it really a dialogue? I have some doubts. First of all the meeting was kind of secretive – speakers were carefully picked, number of attendees was greatly limited by invitation. It was the most expensive stem cell conference ever! Mass media coverage was all the same – vastly positive, without analysis and opinions. Was no videos of talks and panel discussions, was no webcast, was no abstracts available for public. The public had only the choice – to see this “open dialogue” via eyes of mass media outlets.

While the conference is exclusive, seating only 350 attendees, it will reach an even wider audience through radio and television broadcast.

Dear Vatican, if you really want an open dialogue on the matter, please invite all kind of stem cell researchers, invite all kind of media reporters, make it “free to attend” for everyone who wants to discuss, make it affordable for students, make a live or recorded webcacst, video record the talks and panels and share it freely. It will be a good step to “openness”.

Expand global awareness of the here-and-now applications of adult stem cell therapies…

Basically, they want to educate a public. Unfortunately, “stem cell education” by a Catholic Church is always include a mention of how bad and immoral is embryonic stem cell research and can not be uncoupled from “status of embryo”. The whole concept of “scientific education” by a Church sounds funny to me. If young person or patient, who eager to know about stem cells, will look for education information, the Church will be the last place as a source of it. Do we have a trouble with spreading information about stem cells without church? No, we don’t! We have stem cell conferences ever other week in secular world. Conferences with great variety or topic, open attendance and bunch of educational materials.

…reducing misperceptions surrounding the field of cellular research.

By spreading the message about what kind of stem cell research is ethical, mixing science and religion, the Church is the main source of misperceptions surrounding the field of cellular research.

More claims in mass media
Now I’d like to pick a few quotes from mass media sources, which covered the conference.
From Catholic News Agency:

… they want to extend their message by working at overcoming some of the “prejudice and antagonism” against adult stem research that can be found in the medical field.

the response:

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The truth is actually opposite – there is a lot of antagonism against embryonic stem cell research and everyone in medical field is very excited, supporting and promoting adult stem cells! The Vatican is distorting the reality in this message.

From New York Times:

Scientists are happy to see the church adopt a more-proactive stance, even if most are wary in principle about the enduring stricture on the use of embryonic stem cells, said Michael Nobel.

It’s not true. Many scientists are not happy at all to see this move from a Church.

The line emphasized that the human body is sacred, underscoring the church’s interest in its welfare but also signaling that an opening to the use of embryonic stem cells isn’t on the horizon.

The message about immoral embryonic stem cell research and antagonism to it is everywhere.

From Washington Post:

“We don’t want to stigmatize those who do research on embryonic stem cells,” said the Rev. Tomasz Trafny, who heads the science department of the Pontifical Council for Culture. “It is much more useful to focus on the results and the progress of adult stem cells.”

They don’t want to stigmatize “embryonic guys” but they do! They said everywhere that it’s unethical!

EuroNews:

The organisers say they want to counter misconceptions and prove that the Church is not “anti-science”, but “anti-unethical science”.

Instead of counter misconceptions, a Church creates and promotes misconceptions (one kind of cells better than other!). Church always was anti-science! Now Vatican is picking which science is ethical, which one is not and delivering this message to general public.

From Vatican Radio – Interview with Senator Norm Coleman:

If you didn’t support funding in destruction of human embryo you can be place in category anti-science. The world is changed a lot in 2013. The politics does play role here – it’s not just about science, there are powerful political issues… We have to educate a public about what science is… You don’t have to deal with moral questions, you don’t have to worry about that in a sense… we can still achieve many many great things through adult stem cells…

Isn’t it Stem for Life Foundation mantra? Why do they think that public is not educated enough about adult stem cells? Did they do research? Show me the numbers! And why did they suddenly decide that religious institute should educate the people? The truth is that public has lack of education about all kinds of stem cell research! Finally, politics only play a role here if there is a frictions with religion. Remove religion from equation and will be no big political issues in stem cell research.

Just a headline:

Catholic Church is Leading the Way on Ethical Stem Cell Research and Regenerative Medicine

LOL!

Involvement of NeoStem
As a part of “re-branding and new business strategy”, Vatican decided to team up with “adult stem cell industry” and invest. They picked US-based company NeoStem. The reasons why they picked NeoStem were discussed here. Robin Smith – a CEO of NeoStem became an icon of the conference and a president of newly created Stem for Life Foundation. Were ties with Vatican good or bad for the company? There is no consensus on that – some analysts think that Vatican drops NeoStem (you can compare stock performance 2 years ago and now), but some think that it endorses the company.

Reportedly, the Vatican already invested $1B USD in collaboration with NeoStem (VSEL platform). It’s not very clear whether investment was direct or indirect (via Stem for Life Foundation public outreach). But, in the interview for Knoepfler’s blog, Smith disproved the information about direct investment:

Some writers have mistakenly said that the Vatican invested in NeoStem, but that is not the case. The Vatican and its entities are not investors in NeoStem. The Council has set aside funds from philanthropic supporters to support the joint initiatives…

Robin Smith was all over the place before conference. She made multiple public statements, such as:

It is a truly a bridge between science and religion… (source)

To address global suffering, one does not have to choose between faith and science. … These two ideas fit together symbiotically… (source)

Taking in account there kind of quotes and relationships with Vatican, some investors were seriously questioned of how NeoStem treats their employees (read comments here) – do they ask a sexual orientation or abortion history when they hire people?

But the most misleading statement to me was made by Smith about a number of clinical trials:

I think that it speaks for itself, in the fact there are 4,300 clinical trials using adult stem cells and only 26 using embryonic stem cells…

If you follow this blog, you know that these numbers are wrong! Thus, there are only 5 ongoing embryonic stem cell-based therapeutic trials. 4300 popped up after she typed “stem cell” in NCT database, right before to share this excitement with the world. But if she spend 5-10 min more and actually go through the list, she would notice that half of these trials involve different drug combinations in bone marrow transplant clinic.

This year, Vatican invited a bunch of other “adult” companies, such as: Osiris, Mesoblast, Opexa (yes, they called Opexa as stem cell company). What is a benefits for the companies from this special treatment by Vatican? Well, I’d say (1) money and (2) publicity (to do very ethical business).

The fusion of science and religion
Mass media portray the event as a merger of science and religion. As a part of re-branding of Church, Monsignor Tomasz Trafny (Director of the Vatican’s Science and Faith Foundation) commented:

“There was a time when theologians thought they understood everything, but we learned the lesson from history”, he told CNN.
“If you look at what is going on today you will see that theologians are very careful about what they are thinking or speaking about related to scientific issues.”

Is this novelty a sign of Catholic Church crisis?

Sorry, but I think that fusion is not possible, otherwise it’s not a religion any more. So, do we really need a stamp “approved by Vatican” or “these cells are blessed” in science? No, thank you!

Concluding:
Finally, I can’t resist to not include a few more quotes here. Very recent Nature’s editorial – the only coverage I like:

The Second International Vatican Adult Stem Cell meeting, held on 11–13 April in Vatican City, was a shamelessly choreographed performance. Sick children were paraded for television, sharing the stage with stem-cell companies and scientists desperate to hawk a message that their therapies must be speeded to clinical use.

The scientifically naive Vatican finds the concept of adult stem cells attractive simply because embryos are not involved — yet it ignores the ethical implications of false hope.

Very well said!

From my short communication with Chris Mason, who was a speaker on Vatican’s conference:

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Maybe (I hope) they tried to discuss both – adult and embryonic. But what is outcome of this discussion? Who has change an opinion? Was a consensus reached? I hope that someone actually learn more about adult stem cells through this event. But I can’t accept that this discussion and education should be done via church. It’s always distortion of reality. Honestly, I think, this conference is pointless exercise. I think, educated people don’t need religion-linked charities to donate their money for stem cell research. If they really want to, they will go and donate to any charity without religious affiliation. Also, I don’t think people need a church to gain more valid knowledge about stem cells.

I’m done folks! And sorry for lengthy post. It was very tough for me. I’d be happy to hear your opinions!

{ 3 comments… read them below or add one }

John Farrell April 22, 2013 at 8:27 am

Fascinating piece! I know a few of the participants at the conference, so I hope to get more details about the presentations soon.

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Amy Price April 22, 2013 at 7:56 pm

I am in full agreement and I Have worked in International missions for a large part of my life. It is important to remember that choices made in the name of religion are not made in the Name or Nature of God. I don’t need religion to back up my decision to support Stem cell science iPS ES and Adult . It will take the science in its entirety to solve problems we face. Maybe you could share how large Es cells are or the embryo at 48 to 72 hours . The brain and nervous system are not even formed….scientists that endorse false moralism for business reasons have a lot to answer for.

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Bill June 29, 2013 at 3:06 pm

Well, the good news is that the Church is engaging in some kind of conversation on this topic, rather than simply damning ESC scientists to Hell. The bad news, as you point out, Alexey, is that on this topic the Church is conflating the concept of “unethical” with the concept of “contrary to Church doctrine.” To be fair, from the Church’s perspective the two concepts are indeed formally equivalent, and it has every right to assert that. But, of course, from the scientific perspective there is simply no place for partisan theological doctrine…or any other sort of partisan doctrine…in the conduct of science.

It’s a little disappointing that reputable scientists would allow themselves to participate in what is so obviously a doctrinal show-piece. Although I can certainly understand the temptation of an all-expense paid vacation to Rome, plus what I would imagine must be a very attractive honorarium.

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