The Vatican will finance new research into the potential use of adult stem cells in the treatment of intestinal and possibly other diseases, officials announced Friday.
The project is at a very preliminary phase and it will be years before any clinical treatment might be available, the officials said.
The Vatican has agreed to donate €2 million ($2.7 million) to the research, which is led by the University of Maryland's School of Medicine, project officials said.
The church is opposed to embryonic stem cell research because it involves the destruction of embryos, but it supports the use of adult stem cells.
In 2007, Pope Benedict XVI said adult stem cell research respects human life, which according to church teachings begins at conception.
The Vatican has drawn criticism for its opposition to embryonic stem cell research. But the Vatican insists there are scientifically viable alternatives and the efforts of the scientific community should go in that direction. Financing this project is part of those efforts.
But while embryonic stem cells are especially prized for their pluripotency — meaning they can morph into any type of cell in the body — adult stem cells are not as pluripotent. For that reason, embryonic stem cells are considered to have more potential for the treatment of diseases such as Alzheimer's, diabetes and Parkinson's.
Researchers involved in the Vatican-financed project say they want to assess the potential of intestinal stem cells — a relatively new field — for therapeutic use.
"We want to harvest them, we want isolate them, we want to make them grow outside our body and see if they are pluripotent," said Alessio Fasano, the scientist leading the project and the director of the University of Maryland Center for Celiac Research.
"If we reach that phase, if we are able to achieve that goal, then our next step is to eventually move to clinical application," Fasano told The AP before Friday's announcement.
Intestinal stem cells have certain features that makes them appealing for this kind of research, Fasano said.
They are very active cells — the intestine replenishes all its cells every few days — and they are intrinsically flexible — already programmed to generate all the various kinds of cells such as mucus cells or epithelial cells present in the highly complex organ. Furthermore, harvesting them can be done through a routine procedure like endoscopy, Fasano noted.
Fasano said his team hopes to have a first answer on the feasibility of the project within the next two to three years.