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Ave Maria University and the embryo-research connection

By Phil Lawler ( bio - articles - email ) | Oct 14, 2010

Ave Maria University, the ambitious young Catholic institution in Florida founded by Domino’s Pizza entepreneur Tom Monaghan, recently announced it would sponsor several seminars and lectures to examine the relationship between religion and science. This is not purely an academic exercise, but an effort to grapple with issues that have been raised this year regarding the university’s close proximity to what could become one of Florida’s major biomedical research clusters.

The issues have been debated privately on and off the campus since it was announced in March that the Jackson Laboratory, a major genetic research center based in Bar Harbor, Maine, planned to establish a satellite facility in southwest Florida on land close to the university and town of Ave Maria. Developers said the Jackson Lab would be the anchor for what they described as a “biomedical village” with various research institutions, secular educational facilities and a hospital that would specialize in genetics-based treatments. Indeed since the announcement, a number of other organizations, including the University of South Florida (the country’s 9th-largest university, with both medical and nursing schools as well as research initiatives), have said they intend to locate a facility in the “village.”

Questions also have been raised about what relationship, if any, Ave Maria University (AMU) will have with any of the institutions that may become involved in this new research cluster. More to the point, concerned Catholics—including both critics and supporters of AMU—have asked whether AMU has opened the door to cooperation with embryonic stem-cell research.

Since Tom Monaghan laid the groundwork for AMU with a massive personal grant of $250 million, he and the school have attracted more than their share of detractors—some focused on the unapologetic Catholic orthodoxy of Monaghan and the university he envisioned, others on the founder’s determined and occasionally eccentric hands-on approach to every aspect of managing an academic institution. Critics of both sorts were quick to ask how and why such an avowedly Catholic institution could develop close relationships, so early in its institutional life, to a form of research that the Church condemns.

Should Monaghan have stopped the biomedical-research project before it began, by refusing to sell his personal interest in 50 acres of land to his development partners who, in turn, were donating it to the Jackson Laboratory? Insofar as the land in question belonged to Monaghan, not to AMU, could the university be held accountable for the business decisions of a founder whose personality still dominates the institution? The questions were pointed, and they were not unreasonable.

Monaghan himself clearly had some concerns about the morality of selling his interest in property that would be used by an institution at the cutting edge of genetics research. He asked the National Catholic Bioethics Center (NCBC) of Philadelphia, which advises American bishops on bioethical matters, for advice. The NCBC replied that it saw “no moral obstacle” to the deal. There were no known or expressed plans on the part of the Jackson Lab to perform any research at its Florida facility that would contravene the teachings of the Catholic Church, the NCBC found. Moreover, the Jackson Lab itself did not perform research at its Maine headquarters on human embryonic stem cells. Since the question of embryonic stem-cell research would have given rise to the strongest objection to the deal from the perspective of Catholic morality, the NCBC judgment appeared to clear the way for Monaghan to sell his property, and thus for development of the biomedical “research cluster” to begin, with the Jackson Lab as its first major component.

The Jackson Laboratory, a non-profit research institution, specializes in genetic research using mice as models for the human genome. Their research has led to almost two dozen Nobel prizes in medicine. Breakthroughs made by Jackson Lab scientists have identified why the human body’s immune system rejects foreign matter—a discovery that made possible human organ transplants. Doctors today can perform bone-marrow transplants as a direct result of Jackson Lab research.

But in today’s world, cutting-edge biomedical research often gives rise to moral concerns. The announcement that Jackson Lab planned to set up a facility next to Ave Maria prompted some worried Catholics to scour the internet for evidence that the institution might be involved in embryonic stem-cell research. In April that search intensified, after a Jackson Lab spokesman acknowledged that the institution had hosted conferences at which such research was discussed and at which the propagation of human embryonic stem cell lines was demonstrated. Flyers on the site promoted the use of Jackson Lab mice for use in stem-cell research of all kinds.

The Jackson Lab has not said definitively what type of work its scientists will do in Florida. But in spite of public pressure to forswear embryonic stem-cell study, its chief operating officer, Chuck Hewitt, has stated adamantly that the firm will not rule out any sort of research. The Lab also noted that it is a leader in developing methods of stem-cell research using techniques called “induced pluripotency,” in which adult human stem cells are regressed to have identitical characteristics to embryonic stem cells-– a type of research to which the Catholic Church has no moral objection.

So Jackson Lab was not actively involved in embryonic stem-cell research, yet the institution would not exclude the possibility that it might take up such research in the future. The physical proximity of such a research institution to the AMU campus troubled many of the devout Catholics who have flocked to Ave Maria, and provided ammunition for other devout Catholics who have made AMU the object of a relentless campaign of criticism.

One potential source of clarification, in this confused set of circumstances, was the leader of the local diocese. Bishop Frank Dewane of Venice, who is also an ex officio member of the AMU board of trustees, has not offered his own public comment on the controversy. But his spokesman, in an op-ed piece published in late July by the Naples Daily News, made a provocative comment: “An organization which truly respects the rights of all human beings could and should ‘rule out’ human embryonic stem-cell research.”

That statement expressed a thought that most faithful Catholics-- including Tom Monaghan-- could probably support. But the comment was curious in a number of ways. One was its timing. The op-ed column appeared a full 3 months after the Jackson Lab refused to “rule out” embryonic stem-cell research at its projected Florida facility, and just a matter of days before local government officials in Florida’s Collier County were scheduled to take up a proposal to provide $130 million in public funding for the “research cluster” project.

The statement from the Venice diocese marked the first time that observers could recall hearing any comment at all from diocesan officials on the possibility that a secular research institution might perform research contrary to the teachings of the Catholic Church. On the only issue that specifically (albeit tangentially) involved a Catholic institution—the agreement by AMU founder Tom Monaghan to sell his property interest in order to allow the development—the diocesan statement was silent. In a subsequent interview the author deferred to the position of the NCBC, which had found “no moral objection” to the transaction. So what was the purpose of the diocesan statement? As a teaching document it seemed to accomplish nothing.

At this date the proposal for a “biomedical village” near AMU appears to be moving forward, although there are still a number of uncertainties as to how the necessary funds will be raised to bring the project to completion. In Collier County, the overarching concerns are not about moral issues but about the large price tag and its cost to taxpayers. The non-profit Jackson Lab has said that it would require $260 million in public funding to locate in Florida-- half of which the state of Florida has indicated it would provide. Residents of Collier County are divided on whether the project is a much-needed boost that will diversify the local economy or just a subsidy for land developers who have bet heavily on the development of the Ave Maria area. Political maneuvering continues, and although the Collier County commissioners have repeatedly indicated that they want to move forward, there still is uncertainty about how to fund the project-- with just four months remaining before a funding plan must be in place in order to qualify the project for the state's expected support. It seems certain that the project will go ahead, it may take months before an accurate picture of its scope and timing will emerge.

AMU itself has no formal relationship with Jackson Lab or with any of the other research entities that have said they are considering a presence in the research cluster. The site is not within the town of Ave Maria. The only indirect connection with the university is the fact that Tom Monaghan shared a half-interest in the land before he agreed to sell it to his development partner, Barron Collier Cos., who in turn will donate it to Jackson Laboratory.

Nevertheless, the self-consciously Catholic institution of Ave Maria University seems destined to have close neighbors who view the world of science from a very different perspectives. The developers of the proposed biomedical village are aggressively recruiting new partners, including venture-capital firms that will probably have very little interest in Catholic moral principles.

On the other hand, the researchers and their financiers face a similar concern. There can be no doubt at all that the administration, faculty, and students of AMU, and the residents of the Ave Maria community that has sprung up around the new school, are overwhelmingly opposed to embryonic stem-cell research. If the biomedical-research project that begins with Jackson Lab proceeds down avenues that are inimical to Catholic teaching, the AMU community may have many more opportunities to make their opposition effective.

Phil Lawler has been a Catholic journalist for more than 30 years. He has edited several Catholic magazines and written eight books. Founder of Catholic World News, he is the news director and lead analyst at See full bio.

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  • Posted by: bnewman - Oct. 21, 2010 1:46 PM ET USA

    Jackson Labs say that they could not rule out working on (destroying) human embryos if they should choose to, but have never done so before and they have no immediate plans to do so. Would it be immoral to sell a man a gun if he says that he could not rule out using the gun to kill someone if he should choose to, but has never done so before, and has no immediate plans to do so? This is how I see the Monaghan’s moral dilemma. The NCBC sees “no moral obstacle” to this deal

  • Posted by: FredC - Oct. 15, 2010 9:57 PM ET USA

    Catholics need to join Jackson Lab and rise in its ranks to ensure that immoral research is not conducted.

  • Posted by: frjpharrington3912 - Oct. 15, 2010 9:40 PM ET USA

    Recognized by the international community as a leader in medical research which has been applauded for advancing the cause of life why would Jackson Labs want to meddle in embryonic stem cell reseach which has as its starting point the destruction of life? Let's hope and pray, despite its remarks to the contrary, that Jackson Laboritory will restrict its stem cell research to adult lines and heed the advice of the diocese by ruling out research on embryonic stem cells.

  • Posted by: geardoid - Oct. 15, 2010 7:58 PM ET USA

    I cannot imagine what the AMU community could possibly do to make their opposition effective after the present hand-wringing, should the cluster forge ahead with experimentation on human subjects or humanoid derivatives. Someone there needs to sustain pressure for a firm commitment that adult cell research would predominate. I think Tom Monaghan could have used his half-interest as a carrot to get that much. Boo to the NCBC for not even pushing the edge that much (which isn't exactly far).

  • Posted by: skladach - Oct. 15, 2010 7:09 PM ET USA

    This article is a model of Catholic journalism: its calm, thorough presentation of the facts heads off controversy based on half-truths, highlights the real concerns and suggests that the situation can be an opportunity for Christian witness. Well done!