More on the Vatican’s $1 million gamble on NeoStem and their upcoming conference in Rome

In mid-November the Catholic Church, in fact the Vatican itself, will do something it has never done before in its very long existence.

It will hold a conference on stem cells.

Perhaps equally unusual and of interest is the fact that the basis for this conference is a $1 million (USD) gamble by the Vatican on a super high-risk biotech company, NeoStem, in support of adult stem cell research.

While the Vatican reportedly does not hold actual NeoStem shares, the fact that NeoStem’s stock price has fallen off of a cliff lately cannot be reassuring even if NeoStem owner Dr. Robin Smith equates the Vatican’s investment as being “like when you have the Good Housekeeping seal of approval”. Since the Vatican announced  their partnership with NeoStem on June 16, 2011, the stock (NBS) has fallen a shattering 73%. The two companies with human ES cell based clinical trials have had mixed stock results during the identical period with Geron (GRN) down 45% and Advanced Cell Technology (ACTC) up 23%, although ACTC has plummeted of late, down 34% in one month. It’s a volatile sector for investors to be sure. Since the Vatican did not invest in NeoStem shares, its money is not directly at risk due to NeoStem’s stock dive, but such steep price declines have more generally destabilized or even doomed small biotech companies in the past.

The LA Times’ article says that the Vatican stem cell conference is expected to attract “some of the world’s leading experts on adult stem cells”, however the list of speakers does not seem to include more than a couple world leaders on stem cells that I recognize. In a post yesterday on this upcoming event, I questioned the value in mixing religion with science.

An investment website says that Smith has indicated that:

 in addition to speaking at the Vatican Conference, Dr Mariusz Ratajczak, the inventor of NeoStem’s “Very Small Embryonic Like” (VSEL) stem cells technology, shown to have several physical characteristics that are generally found in embryonic stem cells, will be presenting at the American Society of Hematology (ASH) meeting in December.

VSEL stem cells are an interesting, but quite controversial type of cell themselves with some scientists having doubts about them. Very few authors other than Dr. Ratajczak have published on them.

Why did the Vatican choose NeoStem for its $1 million venture into stem cell research? There are quite a few companies working on adult stem cell research. According to the Vatican’s “point man” on the conference, Father Tomasz Trafny, via the LA Times, there were two reasons for the choice:

1) NeoStem’s “strong interest in…searching for the cultural impact of their own work”

2) NeoStem shares “the same moral, ethical sensitivity”

How any individual or organization decides to spend its money is their own choice and I respect that. In addition, I would voice my hope that NeoStem succeeds with their research and helps patients. You see, I, like most stem cell scientists, am a proponent of adult stem cell research, it’s just that I also am an proponent of other types of stem cell research as well.

I would argue that investing in GRN and ACTC (as well as other companies that may in the future have clinical trials on human ES cells) is an ethical investment as well. (note, I don’t personally invest in stem cell biotech companies at all because it is too risky in a general sense for me.)

Finally, my major concern about this conference and the involvement of the Vatican in stem cell research is that it will be used as a platform for attacking ES cell research and for hyping adult stem cell research.

6 Comments


  1. I recognize the names of the scientist as well as the Father from the Vatican coordinating the stem cell conference as being Polish. My assumption would be that Dr. Ratajczak sought out financial support from the Vatican. With Poland being a predominantly Catholic country it is a safe assumption to make that Dr. Ratajczak is Catholic and probably used a pro-VSEL and anti-ESC rhetoric to get the Vatican’s financial support. I agree with your point that everyone has a right to financially support which ever stem cell technology they would like. And I consider using Catholic money to support pro-Catholic technology to be legitimate and fair.

    However, the stem cell conference being held at the Vatican should have more PhD speakers and speakers from both adult and embryonic stem cell arenas so that those in attendance have access to all the information. And so they can fully understand both the upside and downside of embryonic and adult stem cells. This way the individuals in attendance can make a decision for themselves over which stem cell avenue has more promise and not be bombarded with biased presentations. I’m not sure who would be willing to volunteer this opinion to the Vatican – as a trained scientist Dr. Ratajczak knows full well the downsides of his work over using ESCs but I doubt he would want to bring up these points to the Vatican, as they say don’t bite the hand that feeds…


  2. I think this commentary sums up these so called “moral dilemma’s” nicely, whether you’re talking Vatican’s endorsements or EU legal ramifications.

    turning morality on its embryonic head

    What is particularly ironic is that while the court has banned the patenting of techniques derived from destroyed embryos, it has not banned the destruction of embryos themselves, which remains legal. If it is immoral, and illegal, to patent processes that derive from stem cell research, why is the research itself not immoral and illegal? Or, to put it another way, if the research is moral, and legal, why should the patenting of it not be so too? In fact just this point was raised by judge Peter Meier Beck in an earlier hearing in a German court. ‘If something is legally allowed’, Beck observed, ‘then it should not really be forbidden to patent it.’

    If the court judgment is difficult to fathom, the attitude of Greenpeace is even more so. So hostile has the organization become to ‘big science’ that it is happy to line up with some of the most reactionary and obnoxious groups in Europe and jeopardize vital medical research. Organizations such as Greenpeace like to present the debate about embryonic stem cell research (just as they like to do the debate about GM crops) as one between immoral scientists, hellbent on progress at any cost, and those who seek to place scientific advancement within a moral framework. But what is moral about causing unnecessary suffering by creating obstacles to medical advance? And what can be more ethical than attempting to alleviate such suffering through the development of medical techniques? It is about time we stopped indulging theologians and Luddites in the absurd myth that they occupy the moral high ground. They don’t. They are using moral norms drawn from dogmatic and reactionary visions of life to prevent the practical alleviation of human suffering. Theirs is the morality of the closed mind and the entombed heart.

    http://www.kenanmalik.com/essays/bergens_embryo.html

    As usual more concrete evidence of successes in the field would squash critics and is why this researcher hit the nail on the head. I’m sure the doctor took a risk speaking out…I wish more would do the same.

    Timing for Clinical Trials for Stem Cell Therapy in Spinal Cord Injuries Is Right, Review Suggests

    Stem cell research brings tremendous hope to those who remain paralyzed after such a devastating injury. But according to Dr. Fehlings, patients are not able to realize the potential benefits of stem cell therapy because research is largely stuck in the laboratory.

    “With the exception of a few clinical trials, current research is stalled at the animal model stage,” said Dr. Fehlings. “Scientists from around the world have demonstrated as much as they can in lab models that stem cells have an impact on spinal cord injuries and can be transplanted into patients. Now we need the support and coordination of regulatory bodies to move this science forward.

    http://www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2011/10/111018121847.htm


  3. I’m puzzled too with the court’s decision. Back in the day I understood that the case was about overextensive patents, and such, but would allow specific patents (in fact, my previous comments on the topic here were based on this misperception). I was rather confused when I heard that ruling was far more restrictive than I thought, and the justifications they gave for it. And with Greenpeace, of all people (why are they even involved? This isn’t related to any enviromentalist issue!) standing behind this, with the usual misinformed excuse about how supposedly ipscs make embryonic stem cell research redundant.

    Does anybody know how far-reaching this ruling is, and whether it could be overturned or circumveited?

    Also, how about an email campaign to the European parliament?


  4. Seems the Vatican really does like to gamble…did they give the okay on this, too?…
    is this what they mean by..“the same moral, ethical sensitivity”?

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    (Note, this comment was edited by the admin)


  5. I think there’s likely dissension even within the rank and file as to what to do with ESCs. I recall a few years back the head of one of the Vatican’s scientific organizations made the news by expressing his doubts on the church’s official stance.

    (By the way, in regards to the speakers: Anthony Atala is also fairly well known and has defended ESC research in the past)

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