October 24, 2020

The Niche

Knoepfler lab stem cell blog

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

The Vatican has held several stem cell meetings.

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.

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