With the financial backing of the Vatican, University of Maryland researchers will lead an international group of scientists to study adult stem cells from the intestines with the hope of discovering treatments for diseases while bypassing the ethical debates that have embroiled such research for a decade.
The partnership, known as the International Intestinal Stem Cell Consortium, brings together researchers from the Center for Stem Cell Biology and Regenerative Medicine at the University of Maryland; the University of Salerno, Bambino Gesu — an Italian children's hospital; and the Istituto Superiore di Sanita — the Italian equivalent of the National Institutes of Health.
This is not the first time the Roman Catholic Church has funded stem cell research, said Richard Doerflinger, associate director of pro-life activities at the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops. Catholic dioceses in South Korea and Australia have supported adult stem cell research with grant money, he said.
"The Vatican has been very interested in adult stem cell research for many years," he said. "I think it's a logical outgrowth of the church's interest in this field and of promoting ethically sound and beneficial stem cell research."
The exact amount of the grant is being determined, but University of Maryland researchers said the Vatican agreed to fund $2.7 million, which will go directly to the University of Salerno's Medical School Foundation to be distributed to the project partners.
Maryland researchers say the Vatican award shows the Catholic Church stands behind scientific research while supporting a type of stem cell study that holds great possibilities.
But it is also clear that the Vatican encourages the research because it does not involve embryonic stem cells, which the Catholic Church and religious conservatives have long opposed because such study involves destroying embryos.
"We don't have to get into the issue of ‘Is this destroying life?'" said Dr. Curt Civin, director of Maryland's Center for Stem Cell Biology and Regenerative Medicine. "We just don't have to get there. This solution to obtaining cells in a totally ethically unconflicted way is here."
For years, moral objections over stem cell research have focused on the use of embryonic stem cells. Scientists believe they hold promise because they can transform themselves, with prodding, into virtually any kind of tissue. The use of adult stem cells is less controversial, but until recently they were not thought to hold the same potential for medical advancement as stem cells from embryos.
Intestinal stem cells are special, though, because they can be programmed to generate a variety of cells, said Dr. Alessio Fasano, who directs the Center for Celiac Research at the University of Maryland School of Medicine.
"They can become endocrine cells, cells of the nervous system and so on," said Fasano, who was raised in Salerno, Italy, the same hometown as Cardinal Renato Martino, who worked with Fasano to orchestrate the Vatican grant. "This makes them very attractive."
Like blood cells, the cells in the lining of the intestine are constantly being shed and rebuilt, making them very active. They also are easily harvested through endoscopy. Fasano envisions that patients could receive treatments using their own cells, which is not only convenient but less likely to spur rejection.
Much is not known about these cells, and the field of study is in its infancy, Fasano said. Clinical trials are years down the road. Ultimately, the Maryland team hopes to purify, study and transplant the cells, use them to treat damage to the intestine caused by diseases and to investigate the effects of drugs to find medications that work best, Civin said.
Still, some stem cell experts were skeptical of the religious-scientific partnership. While any investigation of stem cells has merit, the roughly $3 million grant represents "a very trivial amount of money and it's a safe area to study," said John Gearhart, director of the Institute for Regenerative Medicine at the University of Pennsylvania. "No one's going to get bent out of shape about this.
"I subscribe to the fact that you will learn something from any stem cell population. That's important; you never know where it is going to take you," Gearhart said. "My concern is, how effective is it going to be generally?"
Any funding for stem cell research is significant, no matter how small, said Dan Gincel, director of the Maryland Stem Cell Research Fund, which manages state stem cell funding. The 2011 budget will fund $10.4 million in stem cell projects statewide.
Cash-strapped Maryland cut back on stem cell funding recently but has remained a leader in the field since a 2006 statute allotted money to advance both embryonic and adult stem cell research. Maryland's fund for such research is the third-largest in the nation after California's and New York's, Gincel said.