Stem Cells: Galileo 2.0?

Posted: March 29, 2012 at 11:58 pm

The Catholic Church has never had a particularly easy relationship with science. After all, this is the institution that sentenced Galileo Galilei as a heretic for his theories on the universe during the Roman Inquisition. Two thousand years later, the church forgave Galileo and called the whole misunderstanding a tragic mutual incomprehension but it remains safe to say the Vatican doesnt have a great track record when it comes to empirical open-mindedness.

So onlookers were surprised when the Vatican announced it would be hosting a global conference on the highly controversial issue of stem-cell research in Rome over four days in late April. The church held a similar conference in 2010 and 2011, which focused on its recommendation that stem-cell research should be limited to adult cells that can be harvested from live donors, not embryonic cells that destroy the source. But this years conference schedule featured some of the worlds foremost experts in embryonic research as keynote speakersleading some scientists to think that the Vatican might actually be looking for enlightenment on the topic.

That was not exactly case. Instead, the Vatican seems to have hoped that by including embryonic researchers in the program, it would appear that these scientists actually endorsed the Vaticans stance.

It might have worked to some extent, but after some of the speakers declined to censor their speeches, the Vatican abruptly canceled the conference altogether. According to the conference website, the event was canceled due to serious economic and logistic-organizational reasons that have completely jeopardized the success of the 3rd International Congress on Responsible Stem Cell Research. The scientists who were planning to attend say they are being stifled instead. I think the only interpretation is that we are being censored, Alan Trounson, president of the California Institute for Regenerative Medicine in San Francisco, said in a statement. It is very disappointing that they are unwilling to hear the truth.

Just what was the Vatican thinking? Inviting embryonic stem-cell researchers to a conference and then denying them the right to talk about their field of expertise was a major gamble. Had the speakers agreed to avoid reference to embryonic research, it would have given the disingenuous impression that they endorse the Holy Sees recommendation on adult stem-cell research only. Did the Vatican really think they could control the scientific community? Apparently so. Father Scott Borgman of the Pontifical Academy for Life, which co-organized the conference, had reportedly asked the speakers to limit their discussions to adult stem-cell research only. George Daly, a leading embryonic researcher with the Childrens Hospital in Boston, says he was actually told not to make embryonic researchhis field of expertisea focal point of his talk. When he told Borgman that he would still be touching on the topic in a historical context, higher-ups in the Vatican reportedly panicked. I had been encouraged to think that the Congress would be a forum for discussion of many areas of common interest to the Vatican and stem cell scientists, regardless of the disagreements over embryonic stem cells, Daly told The Daily Beast. We should all agree that clinical trials of new medical treatments based on stem cells should proceed according to rigorous principles to ensure patients are kept as safe as possible and free from exploitation. And we should all agree that premature claims of therapeutic efficacy and direct marketing of unproven interventions to vulnerable patients is a threat to legitimate attempts to develop experimental stem cell medicines.

Pope Benedict looks on during the mass in solemnity of the chair of St. Peter with new Cardinals in St. Peter's basilica at the Vatican on February 19, 2012. The Vatican stands by its decision to cancel the controversial conference as having a purely business motive. , Alberto Pizzoli, AFP / Getty Images

With the cancelation of the event, discourse between the two diverse entities will not have a venue. One Vatican official told the Catholic News Service that many of the Vaticans leaders were secretly glad the conference failed. I am infinitely relieved that the church has avoided a major blunder which would have confused the faithful for decades to come, the unnamed source said. The Holy Spirit has certainly shown to be present through those faithful members who drew attention to the ambiguity of the choice of speakers. I hope and pray that a review will be affected of the basis on which these congresses are planned.

Some stem-cell researchers are also relieved the conference wont go on. I personally am very uncomfortable with a scientific meeting run by a church, and one at which only certain types of science and scientists are allowed to attend, blogged Paul Knoepfler, an associate professor of Cell Biology and Human Anatomy at UC Davis School of Medicine who blogs about stem cell research at Also I cant help but wonder, what would be the reaction if someone like Daley spent a few minutes of his talk discussing his embryonic cell research in a very nonconfrontational way? Would he be tasered or drop through some trap door straight to Hell?

Still, Knoepfler was hopeful. I view the canceled Vatican stem-cell meeting as a missed opportunity for a very much needed, open dialogue about stem cells, he told The Daily Beast. More specifically, I believe the reasons for the cancellation reflect an anti-scientific attitude by the highest level of Vatican leaders. More simply put, the attitude might be summed up by the phrase If you do not think like us, you are not welcome at our meeting, and well go so far as to cancel the whole thing to avoid your presence.

Inviting embryonic stem-cell researchers to a conference and then denying them the right to talk about their field of expertise was a major gamble.

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Stem Cells: Galileo 2.0?

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