The Vatican cancels stem cell conference

You may want to sit down for this one: The Vatican had planned to hold a conference on stem cell research next month. But here's the kicker--the global center of the Roman Catholic Church recently canceled the event, apparently as controversy began to brew over embryonic stem cell researchers scheduled to attend, including keynote presenter George Daley, an esteemed scientist who heads the stem cell transplantation program at Children's Hospital Boston and conducts embryonic and adult stem cell research with the Harvard Stem Cell Institute.

Whatever way you slice this, it is an unusual story that will likely induce lots of head shaking or scratching, depending on your position regarding the use of embryonic stem cells for basic research. The Catholic News Agency covers one aspect of the issue, and Forbes magazine offers an interesting counter point. Nature's coverage stays somewhere in the middle.

As the CNA reported, the 3rd International Congress on Responsible Stem Cell Research, sponsored by the Vatican's Pontifical Academy for Life, had been scheduled to take place at the Vatican from April 25-28. Organizers even planned an audience with Pope Benedict XVI once the event ended.

A spokesman for the group told Nature that logistical, organizational and financial factors drove the cancellation. But an unnamed source told CNA that some in the Vatican felt having Daley and other embryonic stem cells researchers at the event was "a betrayal to the mission of the Academy [to promote science and medicine that respect church teachings] and a public scandal." Forbes contributor John Farrell speculated that a number of prelates who had opposed "meetings on the topic at all" likely pushed for the cancellation. The California Institute of Regenerative Medicine's Alan Trounson and John Wagner, from the University of Minnesota's Stem Cell Institute--both advocates of embryonic stem cell research--were also scheduled to attend, according to the story.

Obviously, embryonic stem cell research remains controversial. The Catholic Church and other officials see it as destroying human life, while proponents see embryonic stem cell research, using embryos that would otherwise have been discarded, as a vital tool to find new ways to treat diseases such as Alzheimer's. The Catholic Church supports the use of adult stem cell research, at least, and it is noteworthy that officials were willing to schedule a summit likely to offer healthy debate on the issue.

But now we'll never get to see the discussion take place. And in the face of enormous strides in the use of embryonic, adult and many different kinds of stem cell research, it's a shame that the Vatican didn't allow the conversation to proceed. Forbes' Farrell writes that the conference cancellation "is not unexpected" but argues that the move "plays into the hands of cynics who have long argued that … the Roman Catholic Church is not open to science at all."

- read the CNA story
- consider Forbes' take
- here's Nature's story