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POPE-STEMCELLS Sep-18-2006 (940 words) xxxi

Pope endorses adult stem-cell research

By Carol Glatz
Catholic News Service

ROME (CNS) -- Pope Benedict XVI endorsed stem-cell research and therapy utilizing stem cells harvested from adults and umbilical-cord blood.

He also called for researchers and doctors to work more closely together in applying the latest research.

"The possibilities opened up by this new chapter in research are in themselves fascinating" because adult stem-cell studies have pointed to actual and potential cures of degenerative diseases that would otherwise lead to disabilities or death, the pope said at an audience for participants attending a Vatican-sponsored congress on stem-cell therapy.

"How can I not feel compelled to praise those who dedicate themselves to this research and those who support it and its costs," the pope said Sept. 16 to about 260 congress participants at the papal summer residence in Castel Gandolfo, outside Rome.

Scientists, doctors, scholars and bioethicists met in Rome Sept. 14-16 for an international conference sponsored by the Pontifical Academy for Life and the World Federation of Catholic Medical Associations. The congress addressed the scientific possibilities and ethical implications in the use of stem cells.

The pope challenged the "frequent and unjust accusations of callousness" aimed against the church for its unwavering stance against the use of embryonic stem cells. The church has always been dedicated to curing diseases and helping humanity, he said.

The resistance the church shows toward embryonic stem-cell research is because the destruction of human embryos to harvest stem cells is "not only devoid of the light of God but is also devoid of humanity" and "does not truly serve humanity," the pope said.

No matter how promising the goals of such research may be, he added, the ends can never justify means that are "intrinsically illicit."

"There can be no compromise and no beating around the bush" when it comes to the direct destruction of human life -- even when it is just a freshly conceived embryo, he said.

True progress entails the growth of the person which means boosting humanity's technical powers and strengthening its "moral capacity," he said.

Research using adult stem cells "deserves endorsement and encouragement when it happily merges scientific knowledge, the most advanced technology, and ethics that respect the human being at every stage of life," Pope Benedict said.

The pope also asked research centers which look to the church for "inspiration" to increase research in non-embryonic stem-cell studies and to strengthen ties with health-care providers in proposing new therapies.

During the congress, one researcher said that, while there are more than 70 different therapies that utilize adult stem cells, no cures have yet materialized using embryonic stem cells.

Umbilical-cord blood offers a complete cure for children with severe combined immunodeficiency, and it has shown positive results in brain reconstruction for some children starved of oxygen at birth, said Colin McGuckin, professor of regenerative medicine at the British University of Newcastle upon Tyne.

Researchers have cultivated 20 different human tissues using blood from umbilical cords. Stem cells from bone marrow can make bone and cartilage as well as help regenerate blood vessels and revive damaged tissue, he said.

But despite the numerous success stories using adult stem cells, embryonic stem cells are still getting the bulk of the publicity and funding, said a number of participants.

According to Maureen Condic, an assistant professor of neurobiology and anatomy at the University of Utah, there is a legitimate fascination in finding out how a single cell develops into a complex, functioning human. Embryonic-cell study "represents a profound and meaningful question for science and biology" she told Catholic News Service Sept. 15.

But money is also at the root of interest in embryonic stem-cell research, she said. Many who advocate for it "have a clear financial interest" in securing government funding, or "they hold patents or they're stockholders in companies" that would generate a lot of money.

Scientists also have had to learn to spin their research when trying to secure grants and when they speak to the press, Condic said.

Scientists involved in adult stem-cell research are not getting their fair share of the limelight, she said, because they are in a field that is very large and diverse, but the "very small handful" of people actually working with embryonic stem cells "can get together and create a story that's much more unified and compelling."

Many adult stem-cell researchers are too busy helping patients and cannot spend the time or money advocating their work, she said.

McGuckin agreed, saying he hardly ever goes to international meetings to promote his work because of the huge costs involved in travel. He said he was paying out of pocket for all his food and a portion of his travel expenses to attend the Vatican congress.

Getting government funding in the United Kingdom is difficult for nonembryonic studies because "almost everyone" on the panel that decides which projects get money "is an embryonic scientist," he told CNS.

Richard Doerflinger, interim director of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops' Secretariat for Pro-Life Activities, said in his address that drumming up "fairy tales" is more widespread in the embryonic stem-cell field because researchers need to overcome moral objections to destroying life.

He cited cases in which researchers misrepresented their work in major publications ranging from the human-cloning hoax in South Korea to the debunked claim by Dr. Robert Lanza, a U.S. researcher, that stem-cell lines were harvested without harming human embryos.

But as those claims have failed to materialize, he said, "researchers have felt obliged to exaggerate and deceive more and more to maintain public trust and financial investments in their efforts."

Science needs to be absolutely committed to the objective truth, he said.


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