In the past 20 years, stem cell research has been thrust into the medical spotlight as celebrities like Michael J. Fox and Christopher Reeve have advocated for it. Also, numerous studies have shown stem cell therapies have successfully treated a plethora of diseases.
And now, with the release of The Healing Cell: How the Greatest Revolution in Medical History Is Changing Your Life, the Catholic Church has given its stamp of approval on adult stem cell research by discussing the many ways these therapies work for the greater good. In fact, Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI wrote the book’s introduction, which was co-authored by Dr. Robin Smith and Monsignor Tomasz Trafny, along with Max Gomez.
Stem cell therapy isn’t anything new. Using bone marrow transplants to treat leukemia, which started more than 40 years ago, is essentially the same procedure. Through this process, doctors extract stem cells from the bone marrow and transplant them into the body to replace damaged cells caused by blood and bone marrow cancers. Sometimes cancer patients use autologous cells – cells harvested from their own body – and sometimes they use donated cells from another person’s bone marrow.
Smith said when celebrities began speaking out on behalf of embryonic ‘super cells,’ that’s when the real buzz started.
“Embryonic stem cells can become anything, any organ,” Smith said. “You have to destroy the embryo to get the cells, unless it’s from a stillborn fetus. It’s hard to control that in a lab. So that’s a little different from an adult stem cell, which is more mature. They exist in our bodies throughout our lifetime and go on to create just one or two specific things. All these clinical trials are looking at what cells should come from and where, in order to be treated.”
Embryonic stem cells are derived from unused embryos initially intended for in vitro fertilization. However, because of the sheer number of embryos actually created and stored, there are many ultimately slated for destruction.
The ethical concerns come from whether or not to use embryonic stem cells for research. Some people and organizations, including the Catholic Church, feel even though these cells come from blastocysts, it is still destroying human life.
Scientists often counter-argue that if these embryos are going to be destroyed anyway – why not put them to use for research and medicinal treatment?
Smith noted that currently, there are 4,300 adult stem cell trials, and only 26 embryonic stem cell trials.
To date, many major advancements have come from stem cell research. Scientists are using stem cells to treat spinal cord injuries, and children whose parents have banked umbilical cord blood at birth have used it as ‘cures’ for conditions like cerebral palsy and cancer, just to name a few.
Right now, there is a lot of research going on to see if stem cell therapies could treat Alzheimer’s or age-related dementia, and scientists are also studying the effects of stem cell therapy on autism and autoimmune diseases, arthritis, heart disease, mental disorders, Lou Gehrig’s disease and hearing problems.
Stem cells have even been used to regenerate organs, like bladders, windpipes, liver tissue and insulin-producing beta cells for the pancreas.
Finding common ground
In order to resolve the long-standing debate over embryonic stem cells, the medical and religious communities have started coming together in order to find a common solution upon which they can both agree.
Smith currently serves as the chairman and CEO of NeoStem, a company focused on cord blood banking and stem cell manufacturing. The organization has developed a cardiovascular adult stem cell treatment known as AMR-001, which harvests bone marrow from a patient’s hip, and then re-inserts the cells into a damaged heart to promote healing.
Smith’s co-author Trafny, is head of the Science and Faith Department of the Vatican’s Pontifical Council for Culture. He told FoxNews.com the committee joined forces with NeoStem, because it wants Catholics to know they don’t have to make a choice between science and faith.
“They can maintain their own moral sensitivity and embrace higher levels of scientific research; that’s why we are working on this,” Trafny said.
Trafny explained the church is fully in support of using adult stem cells in scientific research, especially when it will be for the betterment of society. He said some people have a misconception that the cord blood banked from a newborn contains embryonic stem cells, when in fact, they are actually adult stem cells.
“Many things need to be clarified, and from our point of view, it’s particularly important to bring this message to our followers, to our believers and our church leaders,” Trafny said.
Trafny said the council likes NeoStem because the company was clear from the beginning that it did not use embryonic stem cells; it focused solely on adult stem cells.
“They are focused on ethical science, and their view is to preserve life,” Smith said of the pontifical council. “Stem cells are the future of science, and the church supports this endeavor and believes it will have a positive effect on humanity.”
When it comes to banking umbilical cord blood stem cells, Smith likened the process to an insurance policy.
“What better medicine to have than your own stem cells banked forever?” she added. “You hope you don’t need them for cancer or leukemia, but if these therapies continue to emerge – where you can restore sight, or treat lupus and diabetes – having your stem cells stored is like a bio-insurance for yourself for the future.”
Smith said if doctors can find a way to treat diseases that are causing people to suffer around the world and do it in an ethical way – what more could you want from science and medicine?
“That’s why (Pope Emeritus) Benedict wrote the forward,” she told FoxNews.com. “Because (the Vatican) realizes how important this will be to humanity.”
Smith said although NeoStem is a non-denominational charity, it was vital to get the church’s stamp of approval because one billion people follow the Catholic Church.
“It doesn’t matter if you are young or old, Jewish or Catholic,” Smith said. “We all know people who are suffering from diseases, and regardless of socioeconomic background, we need to make this a reality. It’s the future of medicine.”