Hilary White, Rome Correspondent

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Vatican misses golden opportunity to evangelize stem cell scientists

Hilary White, Rome Correspondent
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ROME, April 18, 2013 (LifeSiteNews.com) – A Vatican-sponsored three-day conference aimed at educating about the ethical benefits of adult stem cell research might have been expected to hear more than 15 minutes on ethics. But that was the time allotted by the organizers from the Pontifical Council for Culture to the subject that lies at the core of the Catholic Church’s interest in stem cell research, a decision that is being called a missed opportunity.

In two full days and one morning of presentations, only one lecture was given on the rationale behind the Catholic Church’s objections to embryonic research, including cloning. Some in the pro-life community have expressed their disappointment that the Council, headed by Cardinal Gianfranco Ravasi, had not insisted on equal time, or at least a more significant contribution.

Msgr. Ignacio Barreiro, head of the Rome office of Human Life International, told LifeSiteNews.com that while it may be expected that a business concern like NeoStem would focus exclusively on the pragmatic, scientific issues, the Vatican’s involvement could have brought more focus to the ethical concerns, including those that are ongoing over iPS cells.

Last week’s conference, that aimed to include the best and the brightest stars of the researchers in the adult stem cell world, stirred controversy when American Life League objected to the inclusion of a keynote address by Dr. John Gurdon. Gurdon was an early pioneer in cloning and stem cell research, who helped to develop the nuclear transfer technique that led to the cloning of Dolly the Sheep in the 1990s.

He was the co-recipient – with Dr. Shinya Yamanaka of Kyoto University – of the 2012 Nobel Prize for Physiology or Medicine, for his work in cloning that led to the development of the technique to create Induced Pluripotent Stem (iPS) cells, a breakthrough that was hailed by many as a solution to the ethical problem of obtaining “embryo-like” stem cells from differentiate adult skin cells, without destruction of embryos. Gurdon’s work with cloning experiments, developing the nuclear transfer technique, dates back to the 1950s and involved only frogs.

American Life League, however, took exception to Gurdon’s inclusion in a Vatican sponsored event, saying that his work “led directly” to human cloning experiments done by others.

Although Gurdon never did any research with human tissue, his personal position on human cloning remains broadly positive. He told the Daily Telegraph in December last year, “I take the view that anything you can do to relieve suffering or improve human health will usually be widely accepted by the public – that is to say if cloning actually turned out to be solving some problems and was useful to people, I think it would be accepted.” He said that cloning could be used by parents to bring “back to life” children who have died.

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Brown addressed Msgr. Tomasz Trafny, a conference organiser with the Pontifical Council for Culture, saying, “Cloning, human embryonic stem cell research, the use of illicit biological materials in research, IVF, designer babies-all are immoral and unethical. Rather than praise and prizes, the research of Dr. Gurdon and his colleagues ought rightly to be given condemnation.”

But conference organiser Robin Smith, CEO of NeoStem the US biotechnology company that is partnering with the Vatican to promote work with adult stem cells, told LifeSiteNews.com that Gurdon’s inclusion was not intended to be controversial. She called ALL’s reaction “disappointing.”

“There is so much that we’ve learned in the past years. People who have worked on embryonic stem cell research have changed their mind. People who have been supporters have changed their mind.”

She said that the organisers had focused on inviting the leading minds in the field, whatever their religious or ethical beliefs, in order to present to them the scientific case for the clinical successes of adult stem cells over embryonic cells.

The purpose of the conference, she said, was not to gather scientists who already agree with the Church, but to “open up a dialogue between science and faith and different cultures and seeing what impact it will have on society."

Smith confirmed with LSN that the company’s interest in adult stem cell research was based on pure pragmatism; ethics, she said, did not enter significantly into the decision. The results in areas like treatments for diabetes, are the principle motivating factor, she said, “It’s the data. It’s safe and we’ve seen efficacy. We’re seeing good data that says people are off of insulin.”

“You still have issues with embryonic stem cells, regardless of the ethical problems. You still have teratoma formation, cancer formation, safety with rejection,” she said.

“If you don’t need to do ethically questionable research, there’s no compelling reason, then why try to figure out if you can,” she added.

Moreover, for companies like NeoStem, a Vatican stamp of approval opens a significant customer base.

The relationship between the Vatican and NeoStem, and its non-profit educational foundation Stem for Life, was also one of pragmatic motives. The Pontifical Council for Culture approached the company, looking for a way to become involved in research that could be of medical benefit that would not violate the Church’s teaching on the sacredness of human life.

In the opening of his talk, Gurdon admitted that he knew nothing about the ethics or politics that make the topic so controversial, and later told Zenit news service that he was grateful for the opportunity to come to Rome and hear what he would not be able to hear anywhere else.

Gurdon called himself an “amateur” outside the strict limits of his own field, saying, “I know almost nothing about the clinical treatment of patients, and even less about politics and ethics.”

He cited the ethical standard held by nearly everyone in the field of embryonic research, including many who claim affiliation with the Catholic Church, saying that up to 14 days of development, only a few cells in this early stage of embryo “will actually give rise to the embryo itself."

“As has been said, up to that time, there is no nervous system, so the embryo cannot receive any sensation and can’t respond, so until that time, it’s really, for people like myself, it seems that it is a group of embryonic cells without any definitive function at that time,” he said in his lecture.

In Rome last week, Gurdon told Ann Schneible of Zenit news service about his own ethical position: “I’m what you might call liberal minded. I’m not a Roman Catholic. I’m a Christian, of the Church of England. And I don’t agree with some of the rules that the Roman Catholics have.

“But that’s why it’s very interesting for me to meet people here to tell me why they have the various rules they do. And I’ve never seen the Vatican before, so that’s a new experience, and I’m grateful for it.”

Speaking after his brief lecture on ethics, Fr. Nicanor Pier Giorgio Austriaco, an American Dominican priest and moral theologian who is also a molecular biologist, told LSN that ideas like Gurdon’s about cloning are nearly universal among scientists, who have rarely been exposed to serious ethical scholarship.

Most of the people in the world of academic science, he said, are “utilitarians, so if you’re going to have a scientist at a conference like this they’re going to be a utilitarian."

“You just have to be able to have a conversation with them,” he said. “Many of them have never heard any of this. They have never understood the Church’s moral tradition; they’re utilitarian to the core.”

Fr. Austriaco said that even such a brief exposure to the very “rock bottom basics” of classical ethics as his talk provided, was likely an extreme rarity among most professional scientists. He looked upon his own attendance at the conference as “an opportunity to educate my colleagues here – I’m a scientist – so they can appreciate this moral tradition. A lot of people assume that the Church’s moral teaching is just arbitrary, and it has nothing to do with the way they think.”

“The Church has to engage. We cannot be scared,” he said. “What we’re simply saying is that we’re inviting someone to come to give a talk on nothing that has anything to do with the ethics. He was invited here to talk about the science.”

Moreover, he said, Gurdon “is not an ideologue, he is not an advocate for the destruction of human embryos. He’s simply here as a scientist to talk about science he did 50 years ago.”

“He is typical of scientists in that he’s utilitarian, but that’s where they all come from. And now we have the opportunity to actually engage with him. He doesn’t even know that what he’s saying is controversial,” he stated.

HLI’s Monsignor Barreiro did not disagree. “The purpose of the Catholic Church is to provide a moral guide,” he said. He added however, “One would expect that more could have been provided than a single, fifteen-minute presentation in a three day conference, especially given that many of those in attendance might never again have an opportunity to hear the explanation of Catholic teaching.”

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