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​Father Austriaco meets Pope Benedict XVI at the conference

on adult stem cells at the Vatican.

​Father Austriaco Speaks at Vatican Conference on Stem Cells

Providence, R.I.--Rev. Nicanor Austriaco, O.P., associate professor of biology and instructor of theology at Providence College, was a featured presenter at the first-ever Vatican conference on adult stem cell research.

More than 250 scientists, religious figures, politicians, educators, and industry representatives gathered in Rome for the three-day conference, “Adult Stem Cells: Science and the Future of Man and Culture,” held in the Paul VI Audience Hall at the Vatican.

At the close, Father Austriaco had the opportunity to meet Pope Benedict XVI in the 500-year-old Clementine Hall and to ask him to pray for his biology students.

“I told the Holy Father, ‘My name is Father Nicanor Austriaco and I am from Providence College in the United States. My students would like me to ask you to pray for them.’ The pope replied, ‘Please assure them that I will pray for them,’” Father Austriaco said.

Father Austriaco, an expert in the biology and ethics of stem cell research, was invited to address the conference after representatives of the Vatican’s Pontifical Council for Culture heard him speak during the summer at a similar conference at the University of Notre Dame.

In Rome, Father Austriaco gave a 25-minute PowerPoint presentation, “Will the Advancement of Life Sciences Change Our Vision of Mankind?” He discussed how recent advances in systems biology allow scientists to speak about the human soul.

“So much of the moral disagreement in stem cell biology is a fundamental disagreement about what a human being is,” said Father Austriaco. “Most of our contemporaries compare human beings to machines made up of molecular parts, while the Catholic tradition sees us more as an organism that cannot be reduced to its parts. Systems biology can bridge the gap.”

Father Austriaco explained that systems biology looks at the entire organism as a whole.

“We try to understand the whole that cannot be reduced to its parts,” said Father Austriaco. “Once you start looking at the whole, you can see what the soul does. The soul is responsible for making the whole whole.”

While the Catholic Church opposes embryonic stem cell research because it destroys the human embryo, it supports adult stem cell research. In 2010, the Vatican invested $1 million in a partnership with NeoStem, a publicly traded biopharmaceutical company based in New York that has adult stem cell operations in the United States. The recent conference was sponsored by the Vatican and NeoStem.

Promising research

Scientists believe that adult stem cells, harvested from blood, bone marrow, fat, and tissues, may effectively treat autoimmune and degenerative diseases, including multiple sclerosis, diabetes, rheumatoid arthritis, and heart disease.

Father Austriaco said the promise of adult stem cell research has been obscured by “the controversy over embryonic stem cells. The media loves controversy.”

“Adult stem cells are in your body precisely to repair damaged tissues,” Father Austriaco said. “Now, scientists are able to take cells that repair one kind of tissue and use them to repair another kind of tissue, making them more versatile than they otherwise would be.”

At the close of the conference, Pope Benedict XVI addressed the delegates in English, which Father Austriaco said is the language of bioethics.

“Illness is no respecter of persons, and justice demands that every effort be made to place the fruits of scientific research at the disposal of all who stand to benefit from them, irrespective of their means,” the pope said.

He called the potential benefits of adult stem cell research “very considerable,” noting, “No such ethical problems arise when stem cells are taken from the tissues of an adult organism, from the blood of the umbilical cord at the moment of birth, or from fetuses who have died of natural causes.”

Father Austriaco said the Vatican hopes that conference delegates will return to their home countries to promote adult stem cell research there. He said he is planning to do his part in Rhode Island and the rest of New England.

“It’s an opportunity to continue the conversation in the United States and to educate people about adult stem cells,” Father Austriaco said.

--Vicki-Ann Downing

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