The Vatican’s New Clothes: Very Small Embryonic-Like Cells and Faith in Evidence Not Seen
By Ann Neumann | September 25, 2013
Once upon a time, and not so long ago, the scientific world beheld a new kind of cell that, when captured at just the right moment, possessed unique powers. These cells were plastic enough to become any kind of cell within the human body. They were able to regenerate themselves indefinitely. First called “embryonic stem cells” in the 1980s after research moved from mouse to human cells, these magical building blocks of the human body were extracted from blastocysts—early-stage embryos comprised of 100 to 200 cells generated during in vitro fertilization techniques. Potentially, scientists proclaimed, these cells were capable of curing any disease or illness known to man, and represented a new era in modern medicine.
Investment money by the billions rained down on scientists or institutions conducting research into the seemingly endless potential of stem cells. The public’s imagination was captured. Waves of hope washed over the old, the sick, and the dying as visions of new skin, new organs, and new life danced in their heads: the man with failing eyesight; the woman with Alzheimer’s; the child in need of a new kidney. All sorts of promises were ascribed to stem cells: they could target your cancer, your multiple sclerosis, your Parkinson’s; they could give you a new liver, a new heart, a new brain; they could make you younger, happier, immortal!
Almost overnight, this hope was tarnished. Creepy advertisements began to glut the Internet, preying on the desperate and trustful by promising “targeted cancer tumor vaccines” and “non-surgical stem cell transplants.” A chaotic mix of unfounded promises and unsubstantiated hopes reigned. Legal issues arose and burgeoned over stem cell procurement and use; watchdog agencies formed to protect patients and to minimize fraudulent treatment claims. Moreover, embryonic stem cell research ignited a firestorm of bioethical woes over when life begins, how to determine legitimate research, and which studies should be funded—concerns that particularly plagued the Roman Catholic Church, with its emphasis on the seamless garment of a consistent ethic of life.
VSELs were supposed to change all that. Labeled very small embryonic-like cells (VSEL), they were not, in fact, embryonic. In 2006, a Polish biologist named Mariusz Z. Ratajczak published his discovery of these cells in the bone marrow of mice, claiming they possessed all the qualities of embryonic stem cells and could potentially do everything embryonic cells could. Thus, they could circumvent the bioethical issues that plagued embryonic stem cell research. The Foundation for Polish Science awarded Ratajczak the “Polish Nobel Prize” for his discovery in 2006. The Catholic Church poured $1 million of funding into the coffers of the research lab Neostem, Inc., which acquired exclusive licensing to VSELs in 2007. In a 2010 letter to investors, Neostem’s CEO, Dr. Robin L. Smith, wrote: “The potential for very small embryonic-like stem cells is open-ended, as we have found that they may have significant potential to repair degenerated, damaged, or diseased tissue.” Just seven years later, though, it appears that VSELs were a figment, not a tangible discovery. Last month, new research declared they do not even exist.
EMBRYONIC STEM CELL RESEARCH was condemned by the Roman Catholic Church as early as 1983, when Pope John Paul II addressed the World Medical Association on genetic manipulation. In subsequent documents, including the 1987 “Instruction on Respect for Human Life in its Origin,” the Church and its leadership have reminded all—scientists, politicians, and subjects alike—that life begins at conception, a moral fact that remains unchanged and unchanging. A new being is imbued with dignity that first moment when egg and sperm unite, whether it occurs in a woman’s body or science’s test tube. Pope John Paul II condemned the “abominable crime”of using embryos for experimentation, even those slated for destruction, because it “constitutes a crime against their dignity as human beings.”
In 2001, the pope pleaded with President George W. Bush to stop a “coarsening of consciences”—the result, he implied, of the legalization of abortion and euthanasia—that now allowed scientists to assault innocent human embryos. “America can show the world the path to a truly humane future in which man remains the master, not the product, of his technology.” The president gave a special address from his home in Crawford, Texas, that compared embryos to snowflakes and limited research to only those embryos in existence. He said, “You should also know that stem cells can be derived from sources other than embryos: from adult cells, from umbilical cords that are discarded after babies are born, from human placentas. And many scientists feel research on these types of stem cells is promising.”
The president then established a new Council on Bioethics to replace the one created by his predecessor. The council and reports it produced between 2001 and 2009 were strongly criticized for having a “deeply conservative moral agenda.” Particularly fractious was “Human Dignity and Bioethics: Essays Commissioned by the President’s Council on Bioethics,” published in March of 2008. In a book review, Leslie Meltzer, a lawyer and historian of medicine as well as a scholar of religion, criticized the essays for wrapping “political and religious agendas in the guise of dignity,” a concept that “is largely proffered as a touchstone—if not the touchstone—for bioethical reflection.” In short, she claimed, the Council closed conversations about how dignity was conferred—in different ways, over time, by different cultures—by enforcing a you’re-either-with-dignity-or-against-human-life paradigm.
In 2001, the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops (USCCB) seized on a dual strategy for protecting embryos: disprove the efficacy of embryonic stem cell treatments and promote alternatives, including the use of adult stem cells. A clinic that bore John Paul II’s name was founded to promote “ethical” biotechnology. Scientists across the U.S. who agreed with the pope engaged in research meant to prove that adult stem cells were more beneficial to human health than embryonic cell research. Anti-abortion activists fortified their agenda by emphasizing the horrors of embryonic stem cell treatments while promoting the life-giving benefits of adult stem cell treatments. At the 2009 Pennsylvania Pro-Life Federation’s annual conferences, a fetus-shaped potato was displayed alongside a painting of Terri Schiavo in her wedding dress (still virginal, unsullied by her husband, Michael, who successfully had her “starved to death”), while patients gave tearful testimonials about how adult stem cell treatments had cured their terminal diseases. All of this reduced a melee of bioethical complexities to one idea: the preservation of human dignity as defined by a particular Christian worldview.
New popes came and went. In 2006, Pope Benedict XVI spoke at a symposium designed to promote adult stem cell research and organized around the theme, “Stem Cells: What Future for Therapy?” The pope asked, “How is it possible not to feel the duty to praise all those who apply themselves to this research and all who support the organization and cover its expenses?” He proclaimed:
I would like in particular to urge scientific structures that draw their inspiration and organization from the Catholic Church to increase this type of research and to establish the closest possible contact with one another and with those who seek to relieve human suffering in the proper ways.
On March 9, 2009, President Barack Obama lifted the cap that his predecessor had set on federal spending for embryonic research, overturning what he called his predecessor’s “false choice between sound science and moral values.” The next day Richard Doerflinger, associate director of the Secretariat of Pro-Life Activities at the USCCB, released a statement entitled “Science’s Rightful Place,” which criticized Obama for being behind the scientific times. “Science is moving on,” he wrote, “embryonic stem cells are becoming ‘obsolete.’” Doerflinger noted the dangers posed to women by the process used for egg extraction; he cited studies that showed the development of tumors in embryonic stem cell treatment recipients; and he praised a new study that showed adult stem cells could reverse “the symptoms of multiple sclerosis and Parkinson’s disease.” From his position among Catholic leaders, Doerflinger had flung the ideology gauntlet at the president, and by extension at “secular” science. “Science and ethics are pointing the way forward together,” he wrote. “The only thing standing in the way now is an ideology favoring embryo destruction—an ideology that is reflected in the President’s new executive order.”
In May of 2011 the Vatican donated $1 million to the New York-based Neostem. NeoStem had partnered with Ratajczak two years after he discovered VSEL cells. He promised these cells could do everything embryonic stem cells could do—and the Catholic Church needed them to do—without the destruction of “human life.” They were invisible, as yet unproven, but they suited the Church’s moral, ethical, and scientific authority. Ratajczak was like a magic tailor who had come to weave the Vatican a resplendent solution to the public’s clamoring demand for embryonic stem cells. Bioethicist Arthur Caplan of Langone Medical Center at New York University wrote for NBC that the once-promising claim made by Ratajczak provided “an ethical way to use stem cells to cure disease while getting the church out of a horrible bind—condemning embryo destruction for obtaining stem cells while so many worldwide suffered premature death and serious disability.”
NeoStem also founded the Stem For Life Foundation, a non-profit organization devoted to promoting “adult stem cells as an ethical alternative to embryonic stem-cell therapy.” The Vatican, in a partnership with the Stem for Life Foundation, hosted two conferences dedicated to adult stem cell research. Scientists, bioethicists, and theologians from around the world were invited. According to Caplan, who attended the second conference, Ratajczak “enthralled bishops, priests, monsignors, cardinals, [and] theologians.” Stem for Life and the Vatican also partnered to publish The Healing Cell: How the Greatest Revolution in Medicine is Changing Your Life in April 2013. Blurbed by the disparate likes of The Wall Street Journal’s Peggy Noonan, former U.S. Secretary of Health and Human Services Tommy Thompson, and journalist Richard M. Cohen, the book emphasizes the point that the Catholic Church does support stem cell research, just not embryonic stem cell research.
In a telephone interview earlier this month, I asked Richard Doerflinger if the Vatican’s investment in NeoStem was the first such funding of science for the Catholic Church. He chuckled. It was his day off and he was standing in a store in Washington, D.C., trying to do some shopping. “The Church has been investing like this for several hundred years,” he said. “The calendar you use now was written by the Vatican.” He told me that most stem cell funding was shifting to adult stem cells because that’s where the opportunities were. “I don’t think many of these scientists morally oppose embryonic stem cell research; they just find other avenues more promising.”
RATAJCZAK’S FINDINGS COULD NOT be replicated by other scientists. “Is Ideology Overtaking Science?” asked science journalist Henry Nicholls in August. He charged that Ratajczak’s science is thin—and that the Vatican isn’t capable of reviewing the work of bench scientists. Three independent studies—conducted by teams in Germany, Poland, and the U.K.—were unable to replicate Ratajczak’s research.
Then last month, like a prescient truth-teller along the route of the Vatican and Ratajczak’s rich, resplendent parade, Irving Weissman, professor of pathology at the Institute of Stem Cell Biology and Regenerative Medicine, Stanford University, called out, with a published study in hand, that there were no VSELs. “This suggests that these relatively very small events are simply cell debris or fragments.” In the study, released in the August 2013 issue of Stem Cell Reports, Weissman and a team of biologists attempted to replicate Ratajczak’s research, even stretching the parameters, for instance, by looking for cells that were larger than Ratajczak had stipulated. Still they couldn’t find the cells. Nothing turned up.
In a sense, Weissman was proclaiming that the Vatican and its biologist have no clothes. “Vatican gets punked,” wrote one blogger. “Has Mariusz Ratajczak Found the Holy Grail of Stem Cells?” asked Christine Gorman at Scientific American, referring to a mythical chalice with magical powers, its whereabouts still unknown. “There are two problems,” bioethicist Art Caplan later told me by email. “The Vatican is treating embryos as people when they are at most potential people. Their enthusiasm for adult stem cell research and VSELs is misplaced and skewed by this error. Also, VSELs are hugely controversial in themselves—even if they really exist. The Vatican and church leadership need to be wary of this research since it’s proving hard to replicate.”
When I asked Doerflinger at the USCCB whether he or the Vatican were concerned by the results of Weissman’s report, he said that VSELs were “a small part of the broader field.” He told me I should talk to a stem cell expert at the Family Research Council (FRC), a conservative Christian advocacy organization. David Prentice, senior fellow for life sciences at FRC, told me that the real controversy began in 1998, when, “for good or ill a lot of researchers started looking at the possibilities for embryonic stem cells; they were attractive; a potential one-size-fits all solution” to human illness. In those days he was a researcher at Indiana State University, and others were telling him about the potential curing effects of embryonic stem cells. When he began to look at the science, however, he realized that adult stem cells were the ones really delivering results. “There was a lot of hope, a lot of supposition,” he said. What changed his mind about embryonic stem cell use, he told me, was “just science.” When I pointed out that he was affiliated with a conservative organization that, for religious reasons, condemned the scientific use of embryos and asked if he was a convert, he said, yes, but that not all advocates for adult stem cell use were. He now believes that a member of our human species is created when cell and egg come together, no matter how it happens, and that embryonic stem cells are, “an interesting stem cell oddity” that have been “surpassed.” Prentice told me that, “real people are back on their feet or still alive because of adult stem cells” and that while the media continue to not tell the whole story about them, there was a place for ethics in public policy. About Weissman, Prentice said that he thought the debunking of Ratajczak’s research was “a money thing, or a prestige thing, who’s recognized by their peers as an expert.”
Weissman, perhaps the foremost stem cell researcher in the United States, is recognized by his peers in a way that Ratajczak isn’t. (Neither Weissman nor Rajajczak returned calls for this article.) Jacob Appel, a bioethicist and medical historian, told me that “Weissman is as credible as anybody’s gonna get.” When I asked him what’s special about embryonic stem cells—what they have that adult stem cells don’t—he said, “adult stem cells clearly have definite limits on their potential.” There are things that embryonic cells can potentially do that no others can, like create whole new human organs. While Appel thinks Ratajczak and his team are sincere in their work, their research has not yet been corroborated in a credible, reproducible way. It’s hard to believe, Appel said, that “if VSEL cells did exist, they wouldn’t have been found by now.”
Hans Christian Andersen ends his 1837 story, “The Emperor’s New Clothes,” by telling us that, once called out by a child for his nakedness, “The Emperor writhed, for he knew it was true. But he thought ‘The procession must go on now.’ So he held himself stiffer than ever, and the chamberlains held up the invisible train.” The story of VSELs doesn’t fit neatly into the frame of Andersen’s tale any more than Weissman is an innocent or Ratajczak is a common swindler. A magical solution to the Catholic Church’s stem cell dilemma would be a good thing, as biologists continue to search for ways to harness the healing powers of embryonic stem cells. Since these two cultural authorities, the Catholic Church and the science community, are often seen to represent dichotomous poles, each with their own particular grasp of Truth with a capital T, it’s helpful to consider other sources of instruction on moral behavior.
“So who is to be believed?” asks “barbara” on the message board of Stem Cell Pioneers, a forum for stem cell research. While her question is a search for factuality regarding the existence of VSELs, it also addresses, if we stand back, the greater challenge of where and when we draw bright lines in the so-called science-religion divide. With their ancient origins and fabulous scenarios, fairy tales give us the opportunity to think about how ideas of morality and ethics are formed in our culture and to puncture the concrete frames used to hem in the operations of truth, belief, ethics and morality. “Fairy tales take up cultural contradictions along the lines of innocence/seduction or self/alterity,” Maria Tatar, chair of the Program in Folklore and Mythology at Harvard University, explained to me in an email. “Those are contradictions that we can never resolve—only wrestle with in debates, exchanges, and conversations. It’s challenging to fit the truth/misrepresentation axis on their grid, especially since fairy tales specialize in true lies or beautiful lies, misrepresentations that give us higher truths about who we are.” Fairy tales seldom offer clear answers; instead they encourage us to ask questions we didn’t yet know to ask.
Ann Neumann is a Visiting Scholar at the Center for Religion and Media at New York University and has written for Guernica magazine, New York Law Review, and The Nation, among others. She is currently writing a book about a good death.
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