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Vatican to fund stem cell research, led by University of Maryland

With a nearly $3 million grant from the Vatican, University of Maryland researchers will lead an international group of scientists to study adult stem cells from the intestines with the hope of discovering treatments for diseases.

The partnership was announced this morning in Rome and you can find more details in this story I wrote for The Sun.  The Vatican will finance the project through the Italian children's hospital Bambino Gesu, with funding extending from there to the University of Maryland's Center for Stem Cell Biology and Regenerative Medicine and other Italian partners.

I spoke with Maryland researchers about the announcement this week, who told me the study of adult intestinal stem cells could help scientists develop cures and treatment for gut-related diseases without the ethical debates that have embroiled stem cell research for a decade.

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"We don't have to get into the issue of 'Is this destroying life'?" said Dr. Curt Civin, director of Maryland's Center for Stem Cell Biology and Regenerative Medicine. "We just don't have to get there. This solution to obtaining cells in a totally ethically-unconflicted way is here."

Moral objections over stem cell research have focused on the use of embryonic stem cells. Scientists believe they hold promise because they can transform themselves, with the right prodding, into virtually any kind of tissue. But the Catholic church and religious conservatives object to such research because it involves destroying embryos. Adult stem cells, however, are less controversial, but up until recently were not thought to hold the same potential for medical advancement as embryonic stem cells.

Intestinal stem cells have potential because they appear to be different from many other kinds of adult stem cells because they are programmed to generate a variety of cells, said Dr. Alessio Fasano, a professor of pediatrics and physiology who is coordinating the partnership.

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