October 19, 2020

The Niche

Knoepfler lab stem cell blog

Vatican flunks Pepsi Challenge on Stem Cells?

PopeIt’s a confusing time at the Vatican, which has an international stem cell scandal of its own making on its hands.

What the heck is going on?

In an embarrassing move, they organized a stem cell conference for this year and then abruptly cancelled it, with the reason being that they had originally invited a number of prominent embryonic stem cell supporters/researchers to be speakers. There appears to be a huge schism in the Church over stem cells as one faction organized this conference and intentionally invited embryonic stem cell research leaders and then apparently higher ups, who got the vapors, cancelled the meeting.

The organizers of the meeting, at which Pope Benedict XVII was going to speak (see picture above right from Nature), had invited some of the top stem cell researchers in the world and then cancelled the meeting because these researchers were going to be there, a real slap in the face to the legitimate stem cell community.

Nature reports mixed feelings in the stem cell community not only over the meeting itself, but also regarding its cancellation.

Alan Trounson, President of CIRM, was quoted “I think the only interpretation is that we are being censored.” Dr. Trounson is right.

Another leading stem cell researcher who was invited, Dr. George Daley, says he was asked specifically not to make embryonic stem cells the focus of his talk, but “he planned to discuss them for historical context.”

Forbes also has an analysis piece out calling this situation “another black eye for the Vatican”.

Many stem cell researchers, including Dr. Christine Mummery, decided to decline invitations to this meeting in the first place because she was convinced it wasn’t going to be an “open discussion at all” and the adult stem cell researchers were going to be portrayed as the good guys, while the embryonic stem cell researchers were going to be the bad guys. I also raised this question in a piece called “Vatican Stem Cell Meeting 2.0: from stem cells to prison cells to hell?” of whether by attending, prominent stem cell researchers were tacitly giving some legitimacy to an ideologically harmful meeting, but at the same time I wondered if by going some of the stem cell leaders might do some significant good by fostering a healthy dialogue.

The Nature piece also quotes a Vatican official who had been involved in organizing the meeting who says he thought the program was worthy:

Monsignor Jacques Suaudeau, Officer for Studies at the Pontifical Academy for Life, called the cancellation a “sad event” in an e-mail to Nature, and said that attendees would soon receive an official explanation. “I cannot speak until the letter of explanation is given. All what I can say is that until this Friday, the congress was well on its way and that we thought that the programme, as it was, was worthy.” 

I believe it is clear that the Vatican is split on the stem cell issue and the handling of this meeting exemplifies that divide.

This whole thing reminds me of the Pepsi Challenge from decades ago, perhaps because Pepsi is also in the news lately over, in its case, a manufactured fake stem cell controversy. The Pepsi Challenge was (and perhaps still is?) a marketing approach Pepsi used to eat into the market share of Coke. It began when I was 8 years old in 1975. Pepsi did commercials of blind taste tests where people were given sips of Pepsi and Coke, without knowing which was which, and reportedly most people like Pepsi better.

I’d like to give the Stem Cell Challenge to the Vatican. If someone at the Vatican had a certain condition and needed a therapy that would only work if it were based on embryonic stem cells, would they take it? What if someone asked them do you want stem cell therapy A, which doesn’t work, or therapy B, which does work (but were not told which was adult and which was embryonic”, which one would they pick? Which would “taste” better? I think they’d pick the one that worked and for some medical conditions that will be embryonic stem cell therapies.


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