The Church, Stem Cells and Our Future

For centuries, what many perceive as the ‘inherent conflict’ between science and religion has provoked the minds and tested the faith of scholars, doctors, philosophers, religious leaders and casual observers alike. But it seems the two are finally coming together in the interest of saving lives.

In their first-ever collaboration with an outside commercial venture, the Vatican’s Pontifical Council for Culture has committed $1 million to work with NeoStem, a biopharmaceutical company for the advancement of scientific research in controversial area of medicine: stem cells.

Well, adult stem cells that is.

“Adult stem cell research doesn’t harm human life, they protect human beings, they don’t try to clone human beings to use their cells,” Reverend Tomasz Trafny of the Vatican’s Pontifical Council for Culture told “They use other research to develop or possess stem cells, so this is a very clear policy that they adopted to foster scientific research, and because of that policy that shares ethical concerns, we are working with them.”

The announcement came last April, but it seems 2011 is shaping up to be an important year for their initiative as they begin to expand their research efforts and plan educational programs to raise awareness about adult stem cell therapies.

Of course, every new idea has its critics, and Reverand Tranfy knows it’s going to be a big task.

“It’s very challenging of course, maybe some people would not understand immediately our involvement, but we work to bring benefits for human kind,” Reverend Trafny said.

Historically, the church has been opposed to stem cell research because in its early stages, it focused on embryonic stem cells, which involves the destruction of embryos produced in surplus when women go through in vitro fertilization treatments. But it supports the use of adult stem cells, which are found in the bodies of all humans.

In 2007, NeoStem acquired the worldwide exclusive rights to the technology needed to extract the highest-quality adult stem cells, making their vision for the advancement of stem cell research a clear match for the Vatican’s interest in scientific advancement.

“We wanted something very powerful that would give a positive message to society – first of all, that the church is not against research and science,” Reverend Trafny said. “We want to support scientific research and challenges, but we care about ethical implications in research, and we are happy to work with those who share the same views to take moral approach to science.”

Many people don’t realize it, but the church has been looking into getting involved in scientific research and advancement for years.

In 2000, Pope John Paul II organized a large-scale meeting for scientists worldwide to connect with each other and share ideas and information and since then, the Vatican’s Pontifical Council for Culture has continued to search for ways to bring the religious and scientific communities together for a common goal: to save lives.

“We search institutions that look for concrete results, they want to provide relief, they want to help people, and at the same time, they have very clear policy of preserving human life and we work with them,” said Reverend Trafny. “There are a lot of people that are suffering deeply because of different kinds of diseases that today’s medicine cannot solve.”

The science of adult stem cells is gaining momentum, and as a member of both the scientific and religious communities, I think this is tremendous.

Stem cells are the key to healing our bodies naturally, and they are constantly hard at work repairing damaged tissue in the body. Now, with the research and development of stem cell therapies, we are going to be able to significantly repair and even regenerate organs that are damaged or deficient, allowing us deal with diseases that we couldn’t treat before.

We have already seen a lot of research clearly showing that many of these adult stem cells have the ability to become new tissue. Scientists at Wake Forest University have been able to regenerate bladders in a laboratory.

With all the promise that the field of adult stem cell shows, it’s possible that the individual preservation of stem cells will become part of our routine medical calendar just like vaccinations in infancy.

In the future, it may become commonplace to save some of our adult stem cells and have them available in case of injury or disease. We are already doing it with umbilical cord and placental stem cells after the delivery of full-term babies.

These stem cells have shown very similar characteristics to embryonic stem cells and are already being used to treat things like blood cancers and cerebral palsy – which could ultimately eliminate the controversial research of embryonic stems cells all together.

I’m sure that’s something the Vatican would like to see happen, but in the meantime, they will continue to support the advancement of adult stem cell research through a variety of programs aimed at connecting the world’s leading experts and educating the religious community.

“We want to translate it for them to help them to be close to us, to support these initiatives without any fear.” Reverend Trafny said. “Hopefully, in a few years, we will help people — not only to understand supporting and developing scientific research — but to understand that the church can play a crucial role shaping the future of the culture.”

As for the age-old conflict that so many of us perceive between science and religion, I truly think we’re entering a new era of enlightenment, and Reverend Trafny seems to agree.

“Pope John Paul II said it best when he wrote ‘Science can purify religion of error and superstition. Religion can purify science from idolatry and false absolutes,’” he said. “So there is a reciprocal exchange of ideas, and both of them can help each other to provide for a more profound cultural impact for the future.”