By RENEE WEBB
As the use of stem cell research and therapy continues to expand, one medical research institute located in Iowa strives to uphold Catholic teachings in bioethics.
The John Paul II Medical Research Institute (JP2MRI), a non-profit of Iowa City, was founded by Dr. Alan Moy in 2007 to address a shortcoming when it came to pro-life values being upheld concerning a variety of medical practices and issues. The doctor also is co-founder and CEO of Cellular Engineering Technologies (CET), a for-profit biotechnology company that manufactures commercial adult stem cells and other biotechnology products.
He explained that JP2MRI was founded a year after starting CET to advance the application of adult stem technology to clinical applications in the area of neurodegenerative disease, rare disease, cancer and chronic diseases of unmet needs or in underperformed diseased areas. His concern was that the United States was falling behind other countries in the area of adult stem cell research.
Recently, through collaborative research by JP2MRI and CET, a new method for creating safer induced pluripotent stem cells, or iPSC, for clinical use was discovered.
“We started work in traditional adult stem cells over a decade ago,” Moy explained. “The controversy was that among the secular scientific community, adult stem cells were viewed as inferior to embryonic stem cells because they could not convert or differentiate into the variety of cells that embryonic stem cells could.”
When iPSC technology was discovered by a Japanese Nobel laureate scientist about 10 years ago, it was an ethical alternative to embryonic stem cells. iPSC are noncontroversial adult stem cells that are genetically reprogrammed into embryonic-like stem cells without using human embryos.
“But that technology had inherent safety issues just like embryonic stem cells. Most embryonic stem cells and iPS cells have the risk of causing tumors because of their genetic instability,” Moy said. “What we worked on was trying to reduce the tumor risk.”
Building on the original iPSC technology, JP2MRI and CET developed a method by using a variety of chemicals to replace known cancer-causing genes in the process.
“Now we have an iPS technology that is safer,” said Moy, who noted an added benefit is potential reduced cost in drug development.
He spoke about practical applications of this technology such as expanding the use of stored cord blood stem cells for future medical treatment if a disease develops in the child.
“We have a means where we can take the cord blood and make an iPS cell which can have lifelong utility and diversity,” Moy added.
For those who do not have stored cord blood, he said all is not lost as blood can be drawn and stored for people to create their own iPS cell for future use.
This technology can also provide a viable alternative to embryonic stem cells and aborted fetal tissue that are currently used by the pharmaceutical industry, noted Moy, to produce vaccines, gene therapy, cell therapy and protein therapeutics.
“Right now with protein manufacturing, half of it is done using animal cells to produce human proteins,” he explained. “The problem is some of the human proteins that are produced have some minor animal characteristics and they are not entirely human – so there is a push to produce purely human proteins out of human cells. Unfortunately, the vast majority of human cell lines used in protein manufacturing or in vaccine development are derived from aborted fetal tissue.”
Moy anticipates there will increasingly be a movement to shift toward human cell manufacturing, “and if we don’t come up with non-controversial human cells, we are going to have a lot of controversial human protein therapeutics, gene therapies and vaccines that will be distributed at hospitals that must be administered by doctors.”
Morals and ethics
This can create moral and ethical problems. Catholic hospitals and/or Catholic doctors will be forced to decide if they will use that type of product made with illicit cells.
“We have to have alternative products that are equal or better than the products that are currently out there,” said Moy.
The Catholic Church, as well as the average person, may not always be aware of the unethical nature of many of these products. Moy said he has been trying to communicate areas of concern to the Catholic community for years.
“The evolution of biotechnology over decades has become secularized and the power is in the secularists,” he said. Advancement of illicit-cell treatment and therapy “is a serious potential threat to the Catholic health care system including Catholic hospitals and Catholics who are healthcare providers.”
Moy feels strongly about Catholics and the church being pro-active in the bioethics arena.
“The only way in which we can influence the biotechnology field is through innovation,” he said. “Through innovation, if you produce something they want that has technical advantage, then one can influence the direction of biotechnology. Pro-life individuals need to move from a passive bystander to an activist role.”
That is part of the reason he founded the JP2MRI, which is grounded in a pro-life bioethics that respects the dignity of every human life. While more than 300 non-profit institutes and organizations engage in and support human embryonic stem cell research, JP2MRI seeks to find cures and therapies exclusively using a variety of adult stem cells and specifically the iPSC, which are derived from adult cells.
Moy said they are not only looking for ways to produce a variety of products using the safer iPS cells, but plan to license them so other scientists, companies and industries can take advantage of these cells to pursue more ethical biotechnology.