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Tuesday, March 8, 2011

Vatican Invests in Stem Cell Company

Adult stem cells, that is. According to this story, the Vatican has invested a million bucks into the tiny biotech firm, NeoStem.

NeoStem focuses its efforts on adult stem cells, not embryonic ones.  Adult stem cells are called adult because they are made by the body precisely as fully mature stem cells. As stem cells, they can develop into various other kinds of cells. Bone marrow, skin, umbilical cord blood, and even baby teeth (lost naturally of course) are rich sources of adult stem cells.  These are the kind of stem cells that are being used whenever a therapeutic breakthrough is obtained using stem cells.  In fact, bone marrow transplants for people with leukemia is a kind of stem cell therapy.

Embryonic stem cells are the cells that form shortly after fertilization. Embryonic stem cells cannot be obtained in large quantities except by destruction of human embryos. As the very first cells of human development, they have the potential to become any other kind of cell in the body. In theory, this ability would make them more attractive for therapeutic applications.  However, no therapies have been developed to date with this kind of cell. In fact, using embryonic cells is fraught with setbacks.

NeoStem also has a foothold in China, a vast country where the economic possibilities are limitless.  The US Government has also invested some $1.7. Over and above the therapeutic promise of NeoStem's technologies, which the Vatican clearly appreciates, Rome also hopes to build awareness about the value of researching adult stem cells, both for their therapeutic potential and their ethical grounding.

The biotech company has a technology that identifies Very Small Embryonic-Like (VSEL) stem cells. The therapeutic potential of stem cells comes from the way they develop into different kinds of cells. If you think about a damaged organ, your heart, for instance, stem cells could in theory be placed in the damaged areas of the heart to grow into new, healthy heart tissue.  The problem is that most adult stem cells are versatile enough only to become a limited range of new cells. VSELs, like embryonic cells, have a greater potential to become any other kind of cell that is desired.

I cannot vouch for the Vatican's investment strategies, but I can say that the investment makes good bioethical sense.

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