UM to lead stem cell research that has Vatican support

The University of Maryland School of Medicine in Baltimore will lead international adult stem-cell research that has the support of the Vatican.

The venture was announced April 23 at a news conference in Rome that was attended by representatives of the university; the Istituto Superiore di Sanita, the University of Salerno; and Cardinal Renato Martino, retired head of the Pontifical Council for Justice and Peace.

As The Catholic Review went to press, the specifics of the Vatican’s financial support for what is called the International Stem Cell Consortium were still being determined.

According to Dr. Alessio Fasano, professor of pediatrics, medicine and physiology for the UM School of Medicine and director of its mucosal biology and celiac research centers, the consortium has been months in the making.

“We started discussing this a few months ago,” Fasano said in a brief telephone interview from Rome. “It extended from discussions I had with Cardinal Martino. He liked the idea, and submitted it to the Holy Father (Pope Benedict XVI). The Holy Father loved it. This is unprecedented.”

According to a university spokesperson, Cardinal Martino and Fasano share a hometown in Italy, Salerno, which is also the home of Istituto Superiore di Sanita, the Italian equivalent to the National Institutes of Health.

A news release said that Vatican funding goes directly to the Istituto Superiore di Sanita’s medical school, which will then distribute it to the UM School of Medicine and other partners in the consortium.

Research partners include the Vatican-owned Bambino Gesu Hospital in Rome, the largest children’s hospital in Europe.

A spokesman for the Vatican said that it strongly supports the project, but that the Vatican is not directly involved and has made no financial contribution to the venture.

Responding to news reports of a Vatican contribution of 2 million euros ($2.7 million), Jesuit Father Federico Lombardi said in an April 25 e-mail to Catholic News Service that no funding commitment had been given by any Vatican institution.

“This aspect must be further studied,” Father Lombardi said. “It is true, however, that institutions such as the Bambino Gesu Hospital are connected with the Holy See, and therefore its concrete participation in the research can be seen as a ‘Vatican’ contribution, but the precise extent of this participation has not yet been defined.”

The church opposes embryonic stem-cell research, which involves the destruction of embryos. It supports adult stem-cell research, which uses undifferentiated cells obtained from adult organs and tissues.

“This is yet another example of the Catholic Church stepping up to the plate to fill a need that the government either won’t fill or isn’t capable of filling,” said Nancy Paltell, the Maryland Catholic Conference’s associate director for respect life. “The church has been a consistent supporter of stem-cell research using ethical adult stem cells.”

Participants at the Rome meeting said the project would focus on intestinal stem cells, a relatively new field of study. Intestinal stem cells are easy to harvest, replicate frequently and can be used to generate a variety of other more specialized cells, they said.

In the news release, Fasano said “This new coalition brings together scientists from both sides of the Atlantic to ensure we are exploring every avenue of stem-cell research in order to bring real treatments as quickly as possible to patients suffering from deadly conditions.”

Catholic News Service contributed to this article.

Catholic Review

The Catholic Review is the official publication of the Archdiocese of Baltimore.