By Dr. Peter Saunders
The Vatican Pontifical Council had earlier announced a 5-year, $1 million partnership with adult stem cell biopharmaceutical firm NeoStem and its educational foundation to research adult stem cells, examine their use and promote the cells as medical treatments.
Adult stem cells, which unlike embryonic stem cells can be obtained ethically without destroying human embryos, are already used in the treatment of hundreds of diseases. Great strides are also being made in developing the alternative ethical sources – umbilical stem cells and iPS (induced pluripotent stem cells).
I have recently highlighted some exciting new advances on this blog.
Some interesting papers have come out of the conference. Here is one on another promising ethical source of stem cells – the human placenta. I reproduce the article from the Vatican radio site here in full [www.radiovaticana.org/en1/articolo.asp?c=536860].
Adult Stem Cells: the power of placenta
A leading pioneer in the use of adult stem cells to treat life-threatening diseases is calling the Vatican ‘a very powerful and supportive ally to helping advance this technology.’
Dr Robert J Hariri, founder and chief executive officer of Celgene Cellular Therapeutics is a US neurosurgeon and trauma specialist recognized for his discovery of pluripotent stem cells (cells that can differentiate to become nearly any cell of the body) from placenta.
Dr. Hariri spoke to Vatican Radio after delivering a speech on his research on adult stem cells in the treatment of autoimmune diseases at a three day Vatican sponsored conference this week entitled ‘Adult Stem Cells: Science and the Future of Man and Culture.’ [http://adultstemcellconference.org/home]
Recipient of the Thomas Alva Edison Award for his discovery of placental stem cells in 2007 and for engineering tissues and organs from stem cells in 2011, Dr Hariri says he was first drawn to investigate the placenta as a therapeutic source of stem cells after seeing an ultrasound of his daughter while she was an embryo growing in the womb. He marvelled at how the placenta developed more rapidly than the embryo and at its nutrient-giving and protective properties.
He explains that placental cells are ‘one size fits all.’ They can mature into all kinds of cells without an embryo, and do not present problems of rejection by the patient-recipient. ‘The placenta is nature’s perfect graft material. It’s accepted between recipients and donors without having the two be matched.’
Using adult stem cells obtained from human placenta, Hariri says he and his team of researchers have had ‘compelling results’ in the treatment of autoimmune and inflammatory diseases.
‘We’re able to down-regulate the auto-reactive response of diseased immune system and correct things like Crohn’s Disease, Rheumatoid Arthritis and Multiple Sclerosis. And we find this exciting enough to continue to invest in exploring this as a potent, therapeutic use of these cells.’
And the supplies of these stem cells are apparently limitless. Dr Hariri told participants at the Vatican conference that one donor can provide cells for millions of recipients.
‘The placenta is an abundant resource,’ that can be easily recovered when a woman gives birth to a child he notes. ‘It’s readily available, it can be procured or recovered under very rigorous or tight controls. It’s a good, high quality source of material. From a single placenta we can mass produce, expand, manufacture those cells into huge numbers, quantities that allow us to treat hundreds of thousands, and potentially millions of patients.’
When asked what he thinks about the Vatican’s decision to host this week’s stem cell conference, Dr Hariri told Vatican Radio’s Tracey McClure: ‘It’s important for people to realize that the Vatican is a powerful, powerful advocate for science and technology. It is not interfering or impeding progress in this space and I think that the position in supporting non-embryonic stem cells happens to be a logical one because the tools at our disposal today don’t violate anyone’s personal, moral or ethical standards…these stem cells which can be derived from bone marrow, adipose (fat) tissue or from placenta are readily available, high quality, and can meet the needs of the clinical future.’
But is there enough public support in his country, the United States, for research into adult stem cell research? ‘I think there’s confusion…considerable confusion,’ reflects Dr Hariri. ‘There are underlying political and media agendas which sometimes distort the reality. Simply enough, I think that every scientist, every physician, every politician wants to see people have access to new breakthrough medicines that change the way diseases are treated and this is just one new tool.’
Editor’s note. Dr. Saunders is a former general surgeon and CEO of Christian Medical Fellowship, a UK-based organization with 4,500 UK doctors and 1,000 medical students as members. This appear on his blog at http://pjsaunders.blogspot.com/2011/11/adult-stem-cells-power-of-placenta.html