As chairman and chief executive of her own company, Dr. Robin Smith is a significant player in the world of biopharmaceutical products and research. Self-confident, poised and well traveled, she is used to dealing with movers and shakers. But when she negotiated an agreement with her company's latest business partner, she didn't deal directly with the top executive.
He is, after all, the pope.
He is, after all, the pope.
In an agreement that tends to elicit the response "Really?," the Vatican recently signed a $1-million compact with Smith's New York company, NeoStem, to collaborate on adult stem cell education and research.The partners will hold a conference in Rome in November that is expected to attract some of the world's leading experts on adult stem cells, the less controversial cousins of embryonic stem cells.
The Roman Catholic Church staunchly opposes the use of embryonic cells in research or medical therapy, a position that has put it at odds with many scientists and many practicing Catholics.
The agreement enables the church to be seen as taking a constructive role in one of the most promising areas of medical research. For NeoStem, the advantages are obvious.
"It's like when you have the Good Housekeeping seal of approval," Smith said. "This is the Vatican seal of approval."
Smith, who was in Southern California recently for a stem cell conference in Pasadena, was quick to emphasize that the Vatican is not investing in her company, which is publicly traded on the New York Stock Exchange. Most of the collaboration will involve a nonprofit company established by NeoStem, the Stem for Life Foundation, she said. The Vatican's role will include fundraising, launching educational campaigns, contributing to research and sponsoring the Rome conference, Smith said.
The partnership is rare, perhaps unprecedented. "It is unusual, " said Father Tomasz Trafny, the Vatican's point man on the deal. "Never in history [have] we entered into such [a] collaboration."
Trafny, a Polish-born priest who heads a science and theology unit within the Pontifical Council for Culture, said the church decided to collaborate with NeoStem for two reasons.
"First, they have a strong interest in … searching for the cultural impact of their own work, which is very unusual," he said. "Many companies will look at the profit and only at the profit.
"And the second, of course, is that they share the same moral, ethical sensitivity.... Because of that ethical position, we entered into this unique collaboration."
Along with many evangelical Christians, the Catholic Church opposes the use of embryonic stem cells in medicine for the same reason that it opposes abortion, because the procedure destroys embryos that some consider to be human life.
Stem cells are valuable in medicine because they have the ability to develop into many cell types and can be used to replace damaged or destroyed tissue in various parts of the body. NeoStem, for instance, is testing stem cells that it hopes will heal the heart after a heart attack.
In the form of bone marrow transplants, adult stem cells have been used in cancer therapy for many years.
Although adult stem cells are generally harvested from the patient and re-implanted in his or her own body, embryonic cells are taken from early-stage embryos that have been developed through in-vitro fertilization but never implanted in a woman's body.
Embryonic cells are believed to have certain advantages over adult stem cells because they have the ability to develop into any kind of human cell. Scientists, however, tend to support research on all types of stem cells.
"I'm interested in things that work for patients," said Alan Trounson, president of the California Institute for Regenerative Medicine. "I'm not interested in the source of the cells. I mean, if you've got adult stem cells that work, terrific."
The California institute was established in 2004 under Proposition 71, which supported research into stem cell therapy. The state's Catholic bishops opposed that initiative, saying "Killing human life is never justified, even when the intent is to benefit other humans."
Opponents of embryonic cells also say they are not as safe to use as adult cells.
Many scientists, however, argue that embryonic stem cell collection should not be seen as destroying life, because the embryos involved would not have developed into babies. Better, they say, to use them to save lives than to discard them. They also say it is too early in the research to draw conclusions about the safety of one cell type over another.
Trounson was acerbic about the Vatican's partnership with NeoStem. "Maybe they know something I don't know," he said. "Who buys into a company when the stock prices are falling?"
NeoStem's stock is down about 70% from its 52-week high. Like many research-oriented start-ups, the company has not yet made a profit. Smith said share prices have been hurt by the poor national economy, among other factors, but that the company's future looks bright. She stressed again that the Vatican owns no shares.
A financial analyst who follows the stem cell industry, Stephen Brozak of WBB Securities, said NeoStem has great potential but has been hurt by a "depressionary economy" in biotechnology. He declined, however, to comment on the effect on the company's stock of the Vatican partnership.
"I do not get paid to opine on religious matters," Brozak said.
The Vatican's Trafny, who does get paid to opine on such matters, said he hopes the collaboration will help dispel misunderstandings that have arisen about stem cell treatments in general and perhaps heal some of the perceived divisions between the church and science.
"Some people," he said, "will easily oppose this technology … saying, you know, now man is trying to play God. Maybe we should think how marvelous nature is, how it was made that it has within it some capabilities that are so extraordinary."