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Professors discuss adult stem cells at Vatican

Jessica Stoller-Conrad | Wednesday, November 16, 2011

Though the Roman Catholic Church remains firmly against embryonic stem cell research, two Notre Dame scholars visited the Vatican last week to discuss the option of adult stem cell research.

Biological sciences professor David Hyde and Program of Liberal Studies professor Phillip Sloan discussed the scientific feasibility and moral implications of adult stem cells at the International Vatican Conference’s forum, “Adult Stem Cells: Science and the Future of Man and Culture.”

“There is enormous promise that has developed in adult stem cell biology,” Sloan said. “[Conference organizers] are very interested in finding ways in which this can be done without the destruction of human embryos.”

The conference was a product of the Vatican-funded $1 million, five-year research and education partnership between NeoStem, a company that specializes in cell therapies, and the Pontifical Council for Culture. The event hosted 350 specialists in the fields of stem cell research and bioethics.

“The purpose of the conference was to show that the Church actually has a very positive attitude toward science and technology, and the image of the Church as being opposed to developments in science and medicine and biotechnology are simply false,” Sloan said.

He said critics of the conference described presenters as “overly-enthusiastic” about the possibilities for adult stem cells, but he said the presenters supporting the research based their statements on sound evidence.

“I think they were actually able to demonstrate that they have had remarkable success already in things with leukemia and lupus therapies,” he said. “I don’t think there was any attempt to discount difficulties or make excessive promises.”

Sloan’s presentation, “Should the Hippocratic Oath Be Extended to Life Sciences?” focused on the moral implications and necessary guidelines for biological research.

“Is this new kind of research so powerful and so multi-dimensional that an oath is necessary to maintain and ethical framework?” Sloan said.

Hyde, who studies tissue regeneration, said the conference was a unique opportunity to get feedback and input from scholars across disciplines.

“[The conference was] very eye-opening from the standpoint of where adult stem cell therapies actually stand,” he said. “[It fostered] private discussions among individuals about where we stand in our work. We made some important contacts that will potentially affect the directions of our research.”

While Hyde praised the way the conference facilitated dialogue, he said the programming could have focused more on the hard science.

“I don’t believe that the use of human embryonic stem cells was explored in sufficient depth,” Hyde said. “They could have had more of a discussion about the concerns of using human embryonic stem cells, not just from the Church’s side, but also from a scientific standpoint.”