Max Gomez ’73 and Pope Benedict at a conference held at the Vatican in November.
Max Gomez ’73 and Pope Benedict at a conference held at the Vatican in November.
Photo: L’Osservatore Romano

A few years ago, Max Gomez ’73 received an unusual phone call. An official at NeoStem, a biopharma­ceutical company, told him that the company was considering partnering with the Vatican to promote adult stem-cell research. 

“I said, ‘No, really — you’re kidding, right?’” recalled Gomez, who is on the board of directors of Stem for Life, a nonprofit foundation sponsored by NeoStem aimed at educating the public about adult stem-cell research.

To some, the Vatican might seem like an unlikely partner. But while the Catholic Church is a strong critic of embryonic stem-cell research, which it considers unethical because it requires the destruction of human embryos, church officials say adult stem cells offer the same promise, without the ethical drawbacks. 

The Vatican recently donated $1 million to the Stem for Life Foundation, which convened a meeting on stem-cell research in November at the Vatican. Gomez, a television medical reporter, was asked by NeoStem to coordinate the event and, where necessary, to translate the technical material for a general audience. Gomez recruited speakers, put together the agenda, and served as moderator of the conference. 

For three days, close to 250 scientists, theologians, and church officials gathered in Rome to discuss the future of adult stem-cell research. The keynote address was delivered by Tommy Thompson, the former U.S. Secretary of Health and Human Services, and the discussion ranged from the philosophical to the densely scientific. One panel looked at the uses of stem cells derived from bone marrow and umbilical cords, while another conversation centered on the question, “Will the Advance­ment of Life Sciences Change Our Vision of Man?” Speakers from both Catholic and secular institutions attended. 

A former PAW board member, Gomez acknowledged that “there was some wariness” among some scientists when he first began recruiting speakers for the event. In the days before the conference, some scientists criticized the Vatican for what they perceived as an attempt to draw away support from embryonic stem-cell research. Sean Morrison, a stem-cell researcher at the University of Texas, told NPR that “until we do the research, we won’t know” which form of research will lead to medical treatments.

“[P]atients in this country won’t take any comfort from the idea that people are trying to close off avenues of research that could potentially help them,” Morrison said.

While hesitant to speak for the Catholic Church, Gomez said he believed the church wants “a voice at the table” and that its financial and moral commitment to the issue will lend respectability to the field of adult stem-cell research. (Gomez is working with NeoStem and the Vatican on a book about adult stem-cell research.)

The November conference is part of a five-year collaboration between the Vatican and the Stem for Life Founda­tion. Among the goals is to promote adult stem-cell technology, Robin Smith, the CEO of NeoStem, told the National Catholic Reporter. Based in New York, NeoStem finances stem-cell research and allows individuals to bank adult stem cells for future therapeutic use.