By Celine Klosterman
After her mother and an aunt were diagnosed with breast cancer, Anne Gibbons wasn’t surprised when she was diagnosed with the disease in 2007.
She responded by undergoing a bilateral mastectomy, which she initially thought took care of the problem. “I thanked God that we had caught it early; I thought I had gotten lucky,” said the member of the Basilica of St. John in Des Moines.
But in 2010, the cancer returned. So Gibbons underwent 14 months of “debilitating” chemotherapy and radiation, which she finished last May. The 49-year-old Perry resident said it’ll be another couple years before doctors can say whether the treatments worked.
She wants to help further research for a cure for cancer. So she signed up, through the non-profit John Paul II Stem Cell Research Institute in Iowa City, to show she’s willing to take part in a potential study on cancer.
The institute “is really motivated to do the right thing. They are completely committed to finding cures, as well as improvements to treatments,” Gibbons said.
That’s a message supporters of the institute are trying to spread nationwide as they promote Collection for Cures, which will advance ethical, adult stem-cell research on common degenerative diseases (like heart disease), rare diseases and cancer. By partnering with churches, patients, doctors and hospitals, the grassroots campaign aims to collect patient tissues for medical research and raise $10 million to hire 40 to 60 researchers and build a larger research facility.
Dr. Alan Moy, a member of St. Mary Parish in Iowa City, founded the institute in 2006 with a goal of avoiding stem-cell research that destroys embryos. Since then, the few scientists employed there have found success growing stem cells harvested from human tissue. In 2008, the institute produced millions of stem cells from fat tissue from two Oregon children with Niemann-Pick Type C, a rare, fatal disease also known as children’s Alzheimer’s. The National Institutes of Health then treated those cells with FDA-approved drugs and found positive results in 2010 for potential treatments for the condition, according to Kim Lehman, development director for the institute.
Moy wants the institute to use such disease-specific cells for research that could lead to treatments or cures for other rare illnesses or cancer. The institute focuses on patient-oriented research, as opposed to traditional biomedical studies that use primarily lab animals, he said. He wants patients to be part of the process from the beginning, starting by taking a sample of their blood or tissue. A scientist would then extract, purify and grow cells from the sample for study.
He said such research holds potential, but is challenging and time-consuming. It’s more difficult to get federal funding for it than for traditional research, so private donors are vital, he said.
Collection for Cures launched last month in the Davenport Diocese when Joe Flanders, a member of Ss. Mary & Mathias Parish in Muscatine, spoke about the campaign with priests at a Davenport Deanery meeting. Knights of Columbus will make presentations to priests throughout Iowa, inviting parishes to participate by placing a Collection for Cures flyer in their bulletin and giving a suggested donation of $1,000. Eventually, the campaign will spread to Christian churches throughout the United States, Lehman said.
Sponsors are covering the costs of fundraising, so all churches’ donations will go directly to the institute, she said.
Father Robert McAleer, pastor of St. John Vianney Parish in Bettendorf, said his parish will support the drive. He often visits sick residents of the Clarissa C. Cook Hospice House in Bettendorf. “You see all these horrendous diseases, and you’re just helpless. If you knew some hope for cures was out there, that would be wonderful.”
Paul Koenig, a 51-year-old West Des Moines resident, hopes researchers could someday help find a cure for his type of fatal brain tumor, a glioblastoma multiforme. Surgeons excised it last year, but radiation and chemotherapy haven’t stopped it from regrowing. After hearing about the institute’s pro-life focus, he signed up for the patient registry in case he could potentially contribute to a medical study.
“God’s the one who’s in control. There’s not a lot I can do,” said Koenig, who will soon celebrate his one-year wedding anniversary.
“I think many good things will come out of the institute, but it will take time,” said Mike Laake, state deputy for the Iowa Knights of Columbus. Because the non-profit also aims to educate the public about the bioethics of adult stem-cell research, “I think the institute will lend itself to a culture of life, not just in Iowa but potentially the entire world.”
For more information, visit www.jp2sri.org or call Lehman at (515) 202-2517.
Pope’s letter inspired institute’s name
The John Paul II Stem Cell Research Institute in Iowa City is named for the pope who wrote the following in his 2001 apostolic letter “Novo Millennio Ineunte” (“At the Beginning of the New Millennium”):
“Likewise, the service of humanity leads us to insist, in season and out of season, that those using the latest advances of science, especially in the field of biotechnology, must never disregard fundamental ethical requirements by invoking a questionable solidarity which eventually leads to discriminating between one life and another and ignoring the dignity which belongs to every human being.”
Bishop supports institute
Bishop Martin Amos wrote the following in a letter of support for the institute:
“I am pleased that their mission is to advance adult stem cell research that is consistent with the dignity of human life and that the Institute’s plans include training the next generation of scientists in bioethics.
“Adult stem cell research is supported by the Catholic Church because of the great potential to find cures to end needless suffering with no ethical concerns. Sadly, there are others who advocate for the destruction of embryos.
“Therefore, I support the effort to invite people to donate through the Collection for Cures program that will build ethical stem cell lines, provide funding for cures and help to educate the public about the value of adult stem cell research to advance cures.”