Deal comes about a month after the Vatican said it would fund research on intestinal stem cells.

The Vatican has made a public endorsement of NeoStem’s VSEL™ (very small embryonic-like) adult stem cell technology through the commitment of $1 million in funding for a new collaborative research initiative with the New York-based company. The collaboration between the Pontifical Council for Culture’s charitable organization, Science Theology and the Ontological Quest International, and NeoStem’s nonprofit Stem for Life Foundation, will focus on expanding research in the field of adult stem cells and their potential applications in regenerative therapies. The partners will in addition spearhead an educational campaign to help raise awareness of the cultural relevance of emerging technologies and establish new theological, philosophical, and bioethical education programs and courses.

The announcement comes about a month after the University of Maryland School of Medicine confirmed the Vatican would contribute funding to the newly established U.S.-Italian International Intestinal Stem Cell Consortium, which aims to evaluate the therapeutic potential of intestinal stem cells.

In contrast to the provision of funding for what it perceives as ethically sound adult stem cell research, the Vatican’s partnership with NeoStem represents its first ever contractual, hands-on collaboration with an industrial partner in the field. “Considering the potential implication of scientific investigation, medical applicability, and the cultural impact of research on adult stem cells, we view the collaboration with NeoStem as a critical effort,” comments the Pontifical Council for Culture’s Reverend Tomasz Trafny. “Through educational initiatives with NeoStem and sponsorship of scientific research programs involving cutting-edge adult stem cell science, which does not hurt human life, we come one step closer to a breakthrough that can relieve needless human suffering.”

NeoStem’s chairman and CEO, Robin L. Smith, M.D., says the deal will not only provide “critical support to drive research efforts”, but also represents “a milestone for the field of regenerative medicine.”

NeoStem acquired a worldwide exclusive license to the VSEL technology from the University of Louisville in 2007. The firm claims the embryonic-like stem cells that underpin the technology display physical characteristics typically found in embryonic stem cells including the ability to differentiate into specialized cells found in different types of tissue.

NeoStem operates an expanding network of adult stem cell collection, processing, and storage centers across the U.S., which allow individuals to donate and store their own stem cells for potential future medical use. It says the aim is to have 10 such centers up and running across the U.S. by the end of 2010.

The firm conducts its in-house R&D activities at its new laboratory facility in Cambridge, MA, which was officially opened just last month in tandem with its opening of the latest stem cell collection center at the site. The R&D laboratory will also support the planned development of a commercial product to facilitate the separation of very small embryonic-like stem cells from blood, which NeoStem hopes will facilitate the development of high-throughput, cell-based assays for use in pharmaceutical and nutraceutical research. “The R&D center underscores our commitment to research and development and our continued goal of excellence in adult stem cell technologies,” Dr. Smith comments.

In parallel, NeoStem is building a network of stem cell repositories in China. The firm’s expansion into China was given a major boost last year through the acquisition of a controlling stake in pharmaceutical manufacturer Suzhou Erye. NeoStem says that as well as expanding the Chinese stem cell network, it is also building a stem cell R&D and processing facility in Beijing, and is pushing on with establishing the hospital and clinical networks and product-licensing deals that will allow the development and commercialization of stem cell-based therapies in China. The firm states that in 2010, its partners will commercially launch stem cell therapeutic procedures in fields including orthopedics and anti-aging.

The Vatican’s public endorsement of adult stem cell research is in sharp contrast to its stance on embryonic stem cell research. In its Instruction Dignitas Personae on Certain Bioethical Questions, published in September 2008, the Offices of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith describes the obtaining of stem cells from a living embryo as “gravely illicit”. On the other hand, it continues, “Methods which do not cause serious harm to the subject from whom the stem cells are taken are to be considered licit. This is generally the case when tissues are taken from: a) an adult organism; b) the blood of the umbilical cord at the time of birth; c) fetuses who have died of natural causes.” The document even goes as far as to promote research on adult stem cells. “Research initiatives involving the use of adult stem cells, since they do not present ethical problems, should be encouraged and supported,” it concludes.

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