Vatican Backs Intestinal Stem Cell Research Initiative

The Vatican is throwing its support behind a new international research initiative to explore the therapeutic potential of intestinal stem cells.

The International Intestinal Stem Cell Consortium, which is being led by the University of Maryland School of Medicine, has brought together scientists from several institutes in Italy as well as their own to focus on what they consider to be a promising but largely neglected area in stem cell research.

"This new coalition brings together scientists from both sides of the Atlantic to ensure we are exploring every avenue of stem cell research in order to bring real treatments as quickly as possible to patients suffering from deadly conditions such as Alzheimer's disease and multiple sclerosis," said Dr. Alessio Fasano, director of the Mucosal Biology Research Center and the Center for Celiac Research at the University of Maryland School of Medicine, in an announcement Friday.

"All of the partners have put a tremendous amount of energy and enthusiasm into putting this consortium together, and we are thankful to the Vatican for making this research possible," added Fasano, who is coordinating the consortium.

Though intestinal stem cells, like other adult stem cells, are not as pluripotent – or able to become any kind of cell – as more-highly prized embryonic stem cells, they could provide a more acceptable alternative to the latter cells, which pro-lifers are opposed to over the controversial use of embryos to harvest them.

According to the consortium, intestinal stem cells are highly active stem cells that support the shedding and replacing of all the cells in the intestinal lining once every four to seven days. They are multipotent, already programmed to generate all the various kinds of cells - such as mucus cells and epithelial cells - necessary to line the 20-foot length of the highly complex intestine.

Furthermore, intestinal stem cells can be easily harvested using endoscopy, a simple procedure used regularly for intestinal biopsies. As a result, patients could have their own intestinal cells harvested and used to treat certain diseases, such as bowel disease.

If patients were to receive treatments using their own stem cells, there could be less risk of rejection or a reaction to the transplant, Fasano explained.

"These cells are very promising, at least on paper," he said.

To study this further, the consortium will bring together all the pieces of the puzzle – from experts in stem cell research, experts in gastrointestinal medicine, experts in molecular biology and bioengineering.

And together, the group will work to answer two critical questions about intestinal stem cells - how the cells can be kept alive and made to replicate in the laboratory, and how the cells can be induced to transform into different types of cells once they are healthy and flourishing.

If the laboratory research goes well, the consortium could move on to clinical research, testing intestinal stem cell treatments in patients.

"I am confident that this partnership will facilitate new discoveries about intestinal stem cells that also will lead us to a better understanding of all types of stem cells, their function and potential to treat disease," commented Dr. Curt Civin, director of the Center for Stem Cell Biology and Regenerative Medicine and associate dean for Research at the University of Maryland School of Medicine.

"We hope this new funding will help us reach our goals," he added.

Aside from the intestine, other areas from where adult stem cells are harvested to provide an alternative to embryonic stem cells include skin, muscle, and bone marrow.

Also prized for their pluripotency are the newer induced pluripotent stem (iPS) cells, which are believed to be identical to natural pluripotent stem cells – such as embryonic stem cells – in many respects.

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