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Duke’s Kurtzberg attends Vatican conference highlighting stem cell therapies

Wednesday, June 29, 2016
By William Stagg, Jr.

Joanne Kurtzberg, MD –  director of Duke's Pediatric Blood and Marrow Transplant Program, director of the Carolinas Blood Bank, and chief scientific and medical officer of the Robertson Clinical and Translational Cell Therapy Program – participated in a recent Vatican-hosted conference that focused on stem cell therapies.

At the Vatican's Third International Conference on Regenerative Medicine, Progress and its Cultural Impact, Kurtzberg took part in a panel discussion on gene and stem cell therapy approaches to treat rare diseases, and was one of the invited speakers highlighting Duke pioneering treatments using umbilical cord blood cells to treat young children with leukodystrophies. She is an internationally recognized pioneer in pediatric blood and marrow transplantation, umbilical cord blood banking and transplantation, and novel applications of cord blood in the emerging fields of cellular therapies and regenerative medicine.

"The whole meeting revolved around novel uses of stem cells and stem cell therapy, and diseases that currently do not have alternatives for treatments," Kurtzberg said. "There was a lot of talk about how cells can act as 'intelligent drugs' that have activities that go beyond what a single drug could do."

The conference, held April 28-30, was the third in a series of Vatican-hosted conferences organized by the Pontifical Council for Culture's office for Science and Faith and The Stem For Life Foundation on the Progress of Regenerative Medicine and its Cultural Impact. The gathering was attended by the world's leading cell therapy scientists, physicians, patients, ethicists and leaders of faith, government and philanthropy to discuss the latest cellular therapy breakthroughs. It was broadcast worldwide.

On the conference's second day, Kurtzberg and the hundred-plus other attendees had an audience with Pope Francis. He spoke about using stem cell therapy for people worldwide who can't be treated in other ways, and expanding access to treatment for everyone in need.

In the panel discussion, Kurtzberg recounted the progress made toward freezing and storing stem-cell rich materials from umbilical cord blood until they are needed, rather than discarding them. She said the world now has 700,000 publicly available cord blood units to provide unrelated donors for people who can't find a matching donor, plus 4 million cord blood units for private use.  

"It's important for everyone to know that cell therapy is really viewed in a global way as an emerging and important field in medicine," Kurtzberg said. "The purpose of the meeting sponsored by the Vatican was to really bring international attention to the field and to the possibilities and promises it seems to hold for helping us treat diseases that have no other cure." 

Also attending and speaking at the Vatican conference was Vice President Joe Biden. His appearance was the latest stop on his "Moonshot" campaign to eliminate cancer, which brought him to Duke in on Feb. 10.

Biden announced his intent to launch the "Moonshot" effort in October, and President Barack Obama announced the initiative during his State of the Union address in January. His administration has asked Congress to devote $1 billion to double the rate of progress toward a cancer cure.