TCS Daily

First Human Clone

By Ronald Bailey - February 12, 2004 12:00 AM

Korean scientists are announcing today in Science that they have taken the first step toward creating genetically matched cells and tissues for transplant by growing stem cells from a cloned human blastocyst. The embryonic stem (ES) cells were created by means of somatic cell nuclear transfer (SCNT) in which the genes from donated human eggs are removed and then adult cells with all their genes are merged with the enucleated eggs.

The Korean researchers were able to coax 30 cloned embryos to develop to the blastocyst stage consisting of about 100 cells. These blastocysts are clones of the adults that donated the genetic material. They then removed the inner cell mass from 20 of the embryos and were able to establish one colony of ES cells. The cells from the inner cell mass are pluripotent, that is, they can differentiate into all the diverse types of tissues that form the human body.

Until now, no scientists have been able to grow cloned human cells to the blastocyst stage, much less create a colony of cloned ES cells. ES cells are highly desirable for transplants since they are nearly genetically identical (except of mitochondrial DNA) with the cells taken from the donor. This means that such cloned cells would be perfect transplants because they would be unlikely to be rejected by a patient's immune system.

In September 2001, the National Research Council of the National Academy of Sciences' report, Stem Cells and the Future of Regenerative Medicine, concluded that somatic cell nuclear transfer research to create immunologically compatible stem cells like that done by the Korean researchers should be "actively pursued." That's because, as the report concluded, stem-cell-based therapies could alleviate much of the suffering of the 58 million Americans who will be struck in their lifetimes with cardiovascular diseases, the 30 million who will come down with autoimmune diseases, the 16 million who endure diabetes, the 5.5 million who will lose their minds to Alzheimer's, and on and on. Just as the medical revolution ushered in by vaccines and antibiotics vanquished many of the diseases that killed young people in the last century, stem cell therapies might conquer many of the diseases of old age in the 21st century

But why was this scientific advance made in Korea and not the United States? It's difficult not to conclude that a chilling effect of U.S. government policy on such research played a role. In first his national speech in August 2001, President George Bush limited federal support to human embryonic stem cell lines that had already been derived. The House of Representatives has twice voted for a ban on all human cloning research, including cloning to produce transplantable cells and tissues. The majority on the President's Council on Bioethics last year recommended a 4 year moratorium on precisely this type of research. The only American researcher listed as an author on the Science paper, Jose Cibelli, is a professor at Michigan State University, a state that criminalizes human cloning research with fines up to $10 million and jail time up to 10 years. Already, at least one American researcher has fled the country to continue his work in Britain. Never mind the lack of federal funding for human therapeutic cloning research, what private company would invest in this research if tomorrow their researchers could be declared criminals and sent to jail?

Obtaining stem cells means that the blastocyst is necessarily disassembled. Pro-life opponents of cloning research claim that a human being is thus killed. If one believes that a blastocyst has all the rights of a human being on religious grounds, then there is no argument that will persuade one to permit human therapeutic research. Perhaps the best we can do in a pluralistic society is to permit those who want to take full advantage of medical advances to do so, while allowing others to refuse medical treatments that they find morally objectionable. After all, we don't force adult Christian Scientists to take medications or Muslim and Jewish people to use medical products derived from pigs.

Opponents of cloning research correctly point out that the techniques devised by the Korean researchers can be used to try to create cloned babies as well. After all, fertility doctors already implant conventionally produced blastocysts into the wombs of infertile women so that they can bear children. However, given the myriad health problems that cloned animals suffer, it would be unethical to attempt to produce a cloned human baby now.

""The goal of this research is to cure patients using their own tailor-made cells," said Daniel Perry, President of Coalition for the Advancement of Medical Research (CAMR) in a press release. "While those opposed to medical research may argue that this work could lead us closer to human reproductive cloning, it's just not the case. There is a clear, bright line that divides reproductive cloning from somatic cell nuclear transfer and that's implantation. Without it, no new human life can be created," he added.

CAMR's vice president, Sean Tipton, added, ""We call on Congress to follow the common sense conclusion that most Americans have reached -- pass legislation that would prohibit reproductive cloning, but allow and encourage this kind of very exciting scientific research,"

Opponents of human cloning research point to the numbers of human eggs that have been harvested in order to produce a few cloned cells. In this case, the Korean researchers collected 242 eggs from 16 women. They were able to culture 30 blastocysts and to obtain suitable inner cell masses from 20 of them. Only one produced a colony of self-renewing stem cells. It's clear that relying on human eggs as a way to manufacture ES cells to treat diseases will not work.

Fortunately recent research on mouse embryonic stem cells indicates that embryonic stem cells can be transformed into eggs. This would mean that an endless supply of eggs would be available to jumpstart the creation of genetically matched transplants. Thus does scientific progress undercut the lurid nightmares of women being confined to human egg farms to produce eggs for tissue cloning being peddled by cloning opponents.

"While this research is preliminary, it does show what is possible and provides hope to millions suffering from life-threatening diseases and conditions," says CAMR's Perry.

Nobody said that the future would be risk free, but the future also brings new opportunities to cure disease, alleviate suffering, and fend off early death. We'd be less than human not to seize those opportunities.

Ronald Bailey, Reason's science correspondent, is the editor of Global Warming and Other Eco Myths (Prima Publishing) and Earth Report 2000: Revisiting the True State of the Planet(McGraw-Hill). His new book, BioFreedom: How the Biotech Revolution will End Disease, Hunger and Death will be published by Prometheus later this year.


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