Tomorrow sees the start of a three-day meeting in the Eternal City that concerns one of the most promising and controversial scientific research areas of our time: stem cells. Embryonic stem cells have the ability to transform into any cell and tissue type in the body, and thus have the potential to treat hundreds of debilitating diseases and conditions.

With the Vatican City in Rome playing host to the World Federation of Catholic Medical Associations’ and the Pontifical Academy for Life’s International Congress on stem cells, Pope Benedict XVI himself plans to receive participants on the last day of the meeting.

Although he is not speaking at the conference, one man’s recent research will be inescapable. Be it over espresso or Frascati, the name of Bob Lanza will be heard, and his personality and recent controversy surrounding him will be the subject of gossip, discussion and argument.

Unfortunately, the Vatican is not a friend of Lanza’s, as his work deals with human embryonic stem cells. The Vatican — along with, among others, hardline Islamists and President George W. Bush and his supporters — maintains that an embryo, even a very early one consisting of only a few cells, possesses a human “soul.” Anything that leads to the destruction of that embryo, they say, is unethical.

Huge implications

That’s why a paper by Lanza, published in Nature last month, made such headlines. Lanza’s team, at Advanced Cell Technology (ACT) in Worcester, Massachusetts, showed that they can culture a line of embryonic stem cells from a single cell taken from a human embryo. This has huge implications for those who oppose conventional stem-cell research, because a single cell can, and routinely is, taken from an embryo without harming it.

There is, for instance, a commonplace procedure called pre-implantation genetic diagnosis, whereby a single cell is removed from an in-vitro embryo and tested to determine its suitability for implantation into a womb. After a biopsy is done, the embryo can be implanted and then grown to term.

So if embryonic stem cells can be grown from a single cell without destruction of the embryo, some of the fears and objections concerning such research will evaporate.

Unfortunately, the publication and publicity surrounding Lanza’s breakthrough was rather overzealous and an ill-managed message was put out. The initial Nature press release about Lanza’s paper said that stem cells had been derived “using an approach that does not harm embryos.”

It went on to quote Lanza as saying: “We have demonstrated, for the first time, that human embryonic stem cells can be generated without interfering with the embryo’s potential for life.”

However, although the scientists had showed that they could generate a stem-cell line from a single cell, they had broken up the embryos — which comprised eight to 10 cells — and tested their technique on all of the cells. In other words, they had destroyed the embryos in the process. They did this, they said later, in order to make best use of the few embryos they had.

Last week Lanza was called before a hearing of the Senate Appropriations Committee’s labor, health and human services subcommittee and asked to explain what had happened.

“It’s a big black eye if scientists are making false and inaccurate representations,” said Arlen Specter, a Republican senator from Pennsylvania who is a supporter of stem-cell research.

After the scandal in South Korea, where Seoul National University stem-cell researcher Woo Suk Hwang was exposed as a fraud, you would think anyone involved in stem-cell research would have known better. If you’re dealing with something as politically sensitive as the death of a human embryo, then you’d be wise to be extremely careful about what you say.

Confusing publicity

Lanza retorted to the Senate committee that his paper was “100 percent correct” — and indeed it is, if a little murky. It was the publicity surrounding it that was confusing.

Opponents made full use of the own-goal scored by Lanza and Nature.

“All they showed was that you can kill an embryo at an earlier stage than they did before,” Richard Doerflinger , a campaigner with the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, told the Catholic News Service.

Senator Tom Harkin, a Democrat from Iowa, said that ACT should have made it more clear from the beginning that none of the embryos survived. He even suggested that the announcement was deliberately misleading, in order to boost the company’s stock price. The stem-cell field has been hyped too much, he said. “We need to come back to Earth.”

Lanza, who told me he hoped his breakthrough would bring the U.S. president on board, is thoroughly chastened. For those, like Harkin and Specter, who support stem-cell research, it has now become more difficult to convince the doubters. The breakthrough that showed it should now be possible to grow stem-cell lines without killing embryos, has been overshadowed.

But such hype is probably inevitable in the United States these days, where federal funding is no longer available for stem-cell research. Instead, private companies are obliged to pursue their own research, raise their own funds and generate their fundraising publicity.

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