Australian Catholic Church To Fund Adult Stem Cell Research

By Patrick Goodenough | July 7, 2008 | 8:11 PM EDT

Pacific Rim Bureau ( - Putting its money where its mouth is, the Roman Catholic Church in Australia's largest city says it will contribute 50,000 Australian dollars ($26,500) to adult stem cell research, which pro-lifers hope will offer an ethical and effective alternative to destructive research on human embryos.

The announcement came just days after Prime Minister John Howard gave in to pressure from bio-scientists and state leaders who were demanding approval for research on leftover embryos created during fertility treatment.

The church announcement was followed by news of a promising new trial of treatment for heart damage in a living patient by using adult stem cells.

Archbishop of Sydney George Pell said the diocese would provide the funds if the federal government and the authorities in New South Wales state each contributed a "significant" amount of money to adult stem cell research.

Pell, who had unsuccessfully lobbied Howard for a countrywide ban on embryonic stem cell research, said the green light given to the controversial work would result in government funding being misdirected.

Scientists hope stem cells - the building blocks of all types of tissue - will one day provide treatments for diseases such as diabetes and Parkinson's. Many of them favor stem cells from early-stage embryos, arguing that they are more versatile than "adult" ones from sources such as bone marrow.

Pro-lifers oppose the use of embryos, as they are destroyed in the process.

Pell asserted that the only significant advances made thus far in the stem cell field had involved the use of adult stem cells, advances he said had been under-reported.

Pro-life campaigners say that the potential promise from embryonic cells remains a matter of speculation.

"Embryonic stem cell research has produced no human cure and I think the more sensible thing ... is to put money into adult stem cell research and that's what I'm asking the [federal and state] governments to do," Pell said.

The archbishop made it clear the church wasn't offering the money as a way of pressuring the government to reverse its decision on the use of embryos.

Even if the legislation went ahead, he said, the offer stood.

However, this didn't mean the church would not continue its attempts to block passage of the legislation.

"If they [human embryos] are used for research it turns humanity into a means, into a commodity, into a stock," he said.

Pell noted that Howard had spoken of the balancing ethical considerations with the need for medical research when reaching the decision.

"But that was to misunderstand the relationship between science and ethics," said Pell. "The real challenge is to conduct medical research in ways which are themselves ethically sound."


Shortly after Pell's funding offer, doctors at a hospital elsewhere in New South Wales announced they had taken adult stem cells from the bone marrow of a 74-year-old and injected them into his heart, in revolutionary research which if successful could help many sufferers of coronary artery disease.

It is this type of work that pro-lifers point to when arguing that adult stem cell research is the way to go.

Nonetheless, doctors at the John Hunter Hospital in Newcastle, north of Sydney, warned Wednesday that it could take six months or more to establish whether their treatment on Jim Nicol was successful.

The hospital is one of three - the others in Hong Kong and China - involved in the research, aimed at helping patients with end-stage coronary artery disease.

The ailment involves the narrowing or complete closure of the arteries, which supply the heart with oxygenated blood, and is ultimately the underlying cause of a heart attack.

Cardiologist Dr. Suku Thambar of John Hunter Hospital explained that Nicol had already had three bypass operations, and fell within the category of coronary artery disease sufferers for whom neither angioplasty nor surgery were suitable options.

Stem cells taken from Nicol's bone marrow were injected into his heart earlier this week in a bid to stimulate the growth of new blood vessels, he said.

In around six months he will undergo treadmill stress tests to see how much exercise his heart can cope with, which in turn will indicate how successful the procedure has been.

If it works, the method could help treat almost 30 per cent of end-stage coronary artery disease patients, whose other options of treatment are limited.

Thambar said while it was too early to say how the trial would fare, data from research on animals suggested that the adult cells would be efficacious.

In another positive sign, researchers at the Cedars-Sinai Medical Center in Los Angeles reported on Monday that two years after they transplanted stem cells from a Parkinson's disease sufferer's brain tissue back into his brain, the symptoms were gone.

In recent years, British scientists have also found that stem cells from bone marrow could be turned into tissue which could help treat kidney and liver damage, while researchers at the University of South Florida discovered that bone marrow cells could be converted into immature nerve cells.

President Bush last summer dedicated $250 million on research this year into adult stem cells.

See also:
Experts Question Study Suggesting Adult Stem Cells Won't Work (Mar. 15, 2002)
'Exciting' New Adult Stem Cell Discovery Announced (Jul. 25, 2001)
UK Study Finds More Evidence Of Stem Cells' Healing Potential (Apr. 9, 2001)

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Patrick Goodenough
Patrick Goodenough
Spencer Journalism Fellow