"The issue of human cloning has arisen again! In August (of 2001), the National Academy of Sciences hosted a meeting on the science of cloning, and by inviting proponents of human reproductive cloning, it created quite a controversy. Now, this month (November 2001), the biotech company Advanced Cell Technology announced that it has generated human stem cells from donated eggs of women. Is this a great scientific advance? Is this a slap in the faces of the pro-life supporters? Below, we argue that "no" is the answer to both these questions, but the ramifications are considerable.
Despite all the publicity and the hype about how the research of Advanced Cell Technology will lead to cures for some of humanity's most debilitating diseases, the announcement does not represent a great step forward in biotechnology. Indeed, the company's research was preliminary in nature and was unsuccessful in that it did not produce an abundance of human stem cells. Usually, the cloning experiment completely failed. In more successful cases, after dividing a few times, the cells died, and at best, the yield was only six cloned cells. This may be one reason why Advanced Cell Technology did not publish its results in a notable journal. Instead, the findings appeared in the November 25 issue of the online publication e-biomed: The Journal of Regenerative Medicine.
Many scientific teams have already successfully cloned cells in mammals such as mice, pigs, cattle and rabbits. It was almost two decades ago in 1983 when Elizabeth J. Robertson showed that stem cells from a mouse could produce a variety of tissues. The techniques used by Advanced Cell Technology are not new; they are the ones already employed in animal cases. Only their use in human embryos had not been attempted.
that restrictive laws are passed,
then groundbreaking research
on human stem cells may cease.
The cloning of cells is currently an art with results being highly unpredictable and often ending in failure. One concern is whether cloned cells from a mature individual will behave properly: The aging process shortens telomeres, which are located at the end of DNA. When they become too short, DNA reproduction ceases or produces genetic defects.
If the experiments were relatively unsuccessful, why did Advanced Cell Technology publish its results? Representatives of the company stated that they are eager for the day when they will be able to use therapeutic cloning to treat patients and that they would like to keep the scientific community informed of their progress. Advanced Cell Technology has been a leader in the cloning of animal cells.
Depending on environmental conditions, stem cells can potentially grow into any type of organ or tissue. Hence, there should be no rejection by the immune system of transplanted matter generated by cell cloning because the cells are grown using the patient's genetic material. These features offer hope that therapeutic cloning can address diabetes, autoimmune disorders, diseases of the nervous and cardiovascular systems, age-related diseases and sicknesses involving bone marrow and blood. Two specific applications would be to damaged spinal cords and to Parkinsonís disease. However, Advanced Cell Technology barely produced the first step in a long series needed to yield such medical benefits. And some scientists have even questioned whether anything was accomplished.
So why did the company produce a research paper? Probably the real reason for releasing the findings at this stage is publicity. Advanced Cell Technology wants to establish its presence in the emerging field. The company needs hundreds of millions of dollars to carry out its goals. Making noise in the media is one way to attract investors. The release of the research report was coordinated with appearance of articles in Scientific American and in US News and World Report. In some sense and with a little more respectability, Advanced Cell Technology is replaying the publicity stunt of Dr. Richard Seed, the physicist who made so much noise in 1998 about his desire to clone a human being.
The biotech company also might have been motivated to publish its findings before laws are passed banning research with cloned human cells. In July (of 2001), the US House of Representatives passed the Weldon-Stupak bill that prohibits human cloning not only for reproduction but also for research purposes. The terrorist attack on September 11 diverted attention from the issue but the Senate will consider the bill in early 2002. President Bush is a firm proponent of the legislation. In a separate act, the President last August banned the use of federal funds for stem-cell research obtained with human embryos.
It is also clear that Advanced Cell Technology was interested in the willingness of women to donate eggs for this type of medical research. The company easily found a sufficient number of donors.
The November announcement by Advanced Cell Technology has created an uproar by those opposing human cloning. Many in the US Congress would like to outlaw all such work. President Bush has denounced it as immoral. However, the research of Advanced Cell Technology is quite distinct from reproductive cloning. In some sense, the process should not be called the cloning of human embryos: An embryo serves merely as the starting point for cell production. The goal is not to reproduce human beings but their cells. If the process was called the cloning of human cells, fewer people might object to the research.
The process is as follows. Genetic material is removed from the unfertilized egg of a woman. In its place is inserted the DNA from the cell of an adult individual. Chemical stimuli are then used to cause the egg cell to divide. If all goes well, then, after four or five days, approximately 100 cells form among which stem cells group in an inner mass region.
In the future, researchers hope to extract these cells and abundantly grow them in a culture disk. A more difficult task will be to coax the stem cells into producing specific cell types such as those that appear in nerves, muscles, blood and organs.
The outcry against cloning may ruin a milestone opportunity by impeding biomedical advances of great potential, which if properly regulated should be ethically acceptable to the majority of people. If such research is banned in the US, it is still likely to take place in foreign countries. In 2000, Great Britain modified its Human Fertilization and Embryology Act to allow for human therapeutic cloning.
Thus, the premature publication by Advanced Cell Technology may backfire. If public uproar becomes so strong that restrictive laws are passed, not only will Advanced Cell Technology go out of business but groundbreaking research on human stem cells in the United States may cease for all biotech companies, institutions and universities. If that happens, significant medical benefits may be lost.