I had the privilege this past week to take part to a historical event that could very well be one of the most important milestones in the adult stem cell research, not so much for its actual scientific contribution as much as for its societal significance. This past week the Vatican held an international conference on stem cells during which the Catholic Church affirmed its support to adult stem cell research.
When the Church initially expressed its opposition to stem cell research, first with as a message to the Bioethics Committee organized by president Clinton and then later in a letter by John Paul II to President Bush, the main message was an opposition to the idea of “taking one life in order to help another.” He wrote: “A free and virtuous society, which America aspires to be, must reject practices that devalue and violate human life at any stage from conception until natural death. In defending the right to life, in law and through a vibrant culture of life, America can show the world the path to a truly humane future in which man remains the master, not the product, of his technology.”
The message which obviously targeted the use of embryonic stem cells unfortunately became seen as an opposition to “stem cell research” in general, overshadowing the fact that there was another type of stem cells, adult stem cells, which had great potential and did not present any ethical concerns. So for a number of years, the many people throughout the world who rely on the Church as their moral compass came to view stem cell research under a negative light, or at the very least were probably rather confused by the dichotomy between the medical promise of adult stem cells that we hear about everywhere in the media and the Church’s position.
This was finally recently changed when Pope Benedict XVI affirmed, in a private audience at the Vatican on November 11, 2011: “...the potential benefits of adult stem cell research are very considerable, since it opens up possibilities for healing chronic degenerative illnesses by repairing damaged tissue and restoring its capacity for regeneration. The improvement that such therapies promise would constitute a significant step forward in medical science, bringing fresh hope to sufferers and their families alike.”
By affirming its support to adult stem cell research, the Vatican contributes to lifting the hold in the minds of many people and suddenly puts stem cell research under a positive light. I have witnessed so many times people being opposed to stem cell research because they were opposed to “killing babies”, not understanding that nothing was killed in the process of doing adult stem cell research. This announcement by the Vatican suddenly brings the message that there is an ethical way of doing stem cell research, opening people’s mind to the reality that stem cell research is positive and it is now.
The general confusion about stem cells has led most people to think that the benefits of stem cell research and the development of stem cell therapies is something that will take another decade before seeing the light of day; this is not the case. Already today exist adult stem cell therapies for corneal burn, spinal cord injury, recovery from heart attack and stroke, joint diseases, macular degeneration, Parkinson’s disease and other. This is not a medicine of the future, it is a medicine of today, but it could not reach global acceptance and weave itself into the very fabric of society if people in general hold a negative view about stem cell research. That’s what the Vatican has changed last week; by affirming its support to adult stem cell research, the world will now be open to hear the message, accept and integrate the work done by hundreds of medical teams worldwide. We should rapidly see an opening to and acceptance of the very potential of adult stem cells, and an emergence of therapies based on adult stem cells.
So many doctors today continue to think that adult stem cells have little to no potential, because that’s what they were told in med school 5, 10, 15 years ago. So many times people come to me and state that what I am talking about, i.e. the potential of adult stem cells, is not true because their physicians are not aware of it. It is not a criticism to physicians, but as long as there is not a compelling reason for them to question what they read in textbook and what they were told by excellent and knowledgeable professors, then in spite of their genuine commitment to truth and professionalism as physicians, they contribute to preventing the spread of this new knowledge. This new position by the Vatican completely changes the landscape because now, regardless of one’s religious view, the thought in every mind will be, “if the Vatican took such a position, they must have studied the situation.” It is in that way that I believe this simple announcement, without bringing anything new scientifically, is nonetheless called to be a turning point in the development of this new and promising stem cell-base medicine.