Scientists at Stanford University School of Medicine issued a report this month that said a type of stem-cell alternative approved by the Vatican and other theologians has turned out to be a myth. According to an essay by bioethicist Arthur Caplan, Dr. Irving Weissman and his team have concluded that so-called very small embryonic-like (VSEL) stem cells are at best a laboratory error and at worst a deliberate fraud perpetrated on the scientific and religious communities.

In 2011, the Vatican called a press conference to present Polish stem cell biologist Mariusz Z. Ratajczak, who claimed that he had discovered heretofore unknown stem cells present in adult cells. These tiny cells, he claimed, could perform the same tasks as embryonic stem cells, including tissue regeneration and the miraculous capacity that embryonic stem cells have to mimic other types of cell tissue. Moreover, these VSEL cells, said Ratajczak, could be harvested from adult cells without harming human embryos or relying on them for cell material.

"The theologians," wrote Caplan, "were delighted." They believed that the new technology could halt what they see as the murder of unborn children. The Vatican took the unprecedented step of investing heavily in NeoStem, a company claiming to specialize in VSEL research and production, in hopes that the new technology would render the destruction of embryos for stem cells obsolete.

"This discovery offers the possibility of capturing many of the key advantages associated with embryonic stem cells without the ethical or moral dilemmas and without some of the potential negative biological effects associated with embryonic stem cells," promised NeoStem's website.

The trouble is, the cells don't exist. At least, according to Weissman, who said that his team not only hasn't been able to make VSELs perform their tissue-regenerative miracles in the laboratory, they can't find them at all.

“It has become important to know to what extent and where these VSEL cells exist to understand how they may affect the field of stem cell research,” Weissman wrote. “We tried as hard as we could to replicate the original published results using the methods described and were unable to detect these cells in either the bone marrow or the blood of laboratory mice.”

Rüdiger Alt, head of research at Vita 34, an umbilical cord blood bank in Leipzig, Germany -- whose team also failed to get results from Ratajczak's methods -- told the journal Nature, "Weissman’s evidence is a clincher — it is the end of the road for VSELs.”

Bioethicist Caplan wrote that supporters of VSEL research "say their peers just don’t have the techniques down for finding them. But it is just as likely that in their hope to find a solution to stem cell research acceptable to the Roman Catholic Church and other religious groups they have let themselves find something that is just not there."

He concluded, "Until someone other then those tied to the power of VSELS for religious or business reasons can find them, be wary of any claims about their power to heal."

[image of embryonic material extraction via]