More MS news articles for Aug 2001

Stem-cell research shows promise, but techniques intertwine with cloning - and defining - human life

Monday, August 20, 2001
By Carol M. Ostrom
Seattle Times

The headlines seemed to herald the arrival of the Brave New World:

First, renegade scientists announced they were attempting to clone a human being.

Then, President George W. Bush issued a long-awaited funding edict on research on embryonic stem cells, which some scientists believe hold the key to curing disease, generating new organs, maybe everlasting life.

With the exception of abortion, no issues so test both our faith in science and our beliefs about who we are as human beings.

Human reproductive cloning and embryonic stem-cell research are separate issues, but in several ways, inextricably linked. They share a common conflict: the promise of ending human suffering vs. the fear of plunging into an inescapable moral chasm.

Dennis Norton clings to the promise of embryonic stem cells: A former computer programmer, he is confined to a wheelchair with amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, also known as Lou Gehrig's disease, a progressive and fatal neuromuscular illness. He has always loved reading reports of scientific discoveries, but now, he says: "I have a personal stake."

"I pray for the scientists," he says. "I pray for their inspiration."

But Camille De Blasi, education director for the state chapter of Human Life, points to the moral chasm: What happens to our humanity if we destroy embryos to harvest stem cells? Can we barter away one life to enhance or create another?

Embryos are tiny members of the human family, she believes, not "property" to be used as a means to an end. And reproductive cloning, she says, would remove human beings from "the most intimate and enduring aspect of their nature: love."

Bush said no federal funds could be used for stem-cell research involving the future destruction of embryos even "spare" embryos now frozen in fertility clinics and destined for disposal or for human cloning. He limited funding to research on existing stem-cell lines, developed from embryos already destroyed.

Stem cells, in a growing embryo, have the unique ability to morph into all the sorts of tissues and organs the body needs. In the lab, much of that potential is unrealized, but scientists believe stem cells offer unprecedented hope to those suffering from diseases from diabetes to Alzheimer's. And some researchers believe that super-potent embryonic stem cells, with their "blank slates" and ability to proliferate enthusiastically, promise even more.

Most research on human stem cells, except for those found in bone marrow, is in early stages, conducted mostly on so-called "adult" cells, not those taken from embryos. But some scientists see a magic bullet in the far future.

For Dennis Norton, it might someday mean the creation of stem cells with his own DNA, which would then be coaxed to grow the nerve and muscle tissue he needs. The real magic: Because these tissues would have his genetic fingerprint, they wouldn't be rejected by his immune system. That's the hope.

The fear is that such techniques require a type of cloning.

Scientists and patients alike worry that the distaste for reproductive cloning to make babies may prompt laws that would prevent cloning techniques in stem-cell research. The U.S. House, with Bush's approval, has passed such legislation.

Polls show that most people in the U.S. support stem-cell research, including on embryos. But answers vary widely based on the wording of this fact: Harvesting stem cells destroys the embryo.

Polls also show that cloning makes people queasy.

"It's the word," says University of Puget Sound ethicist Suzanne Holland. "It inflames our passion and it should, in some ways."

People equate cloning with little copies little copies of Dolly the sheep, little copies of themselves. Then come thoughts of genetic engineering, rows of Stepford wives, armies of slave "clones."

But the process that theoretically could create a cloned human is the same one that may someday create muscle cells for Norton.

The technology itself is called "somatic-cell nuclear transfer," or "therapeutic cloning." The procedure goes like this: The nucleus of an unfertilized egg is removed, new DNA from a cell such as from skin is inserted and an electrical charge given to jump-start the fusion and the development of an embryo. From there, the embryo could have stem cells harvested, and thus be destroyed or it could become a baby.

Unlike babies made the traditional way, this one's DNA would come from only one person.

That fact makes "human reproductive cloning" an oxymoron, says Mary Forster, director of Swedish Medical Center's Department of Reproductive Technology.

Cloning, which uses only one person's genetic material, is not truly human reproduction, she says, because "it's not a couple thing."

Brigitte Boisselier, the director of Clonaid, one of the companies that announced its intent to accomplish human cloning, said in a National Academy of Sciences panel earlier this month that we all have the right to reproduce ourselves as we choose, mixing our genes with someone else or not.

But would that make men obsolete? Would women demand the right to create cloned embryos for stem cells tailor-made for a sick child? Where will it lead, Forster asks, "if we all just reproduce ourselves?"

As society confronts the Brave New World, several with a stake in that world wrestle with those questions.

Carole Miller, ALS coordinator for the Muscular Dystrophy Association's Northwest Washington Chapter.

"I would have to withhold judgment about human cloning to create another human being, but I think it's inevitable. You can't stop it, any more than you can stop abortions or cosmetic surgery. And of course, capitalism will enter into it, and it'll become the right thing to do if it earns money for some corporation."

The risks of cloning humans concern her. "I can't say cloning's wrong. I only know it might be premature because it may lead to people who would suffer and not lead satisfying lives."

But the use or cloning of embryos to help produce stem cells doesn't. Existing life ranks above "potential life," she says. "I work with adults and children who have progressive and terminal diseases that cause distorted bodies and trouble with breathing, and then death. Some are totally paralyzed; they can't eat or blink. Stem-cell research holds hope for them. I would like to see an end to this suffering, and people being alive in their own bodies."

Dr. Michael Soules, director of the University of Washington's Fertility & Endocrine Center and president of the American Society for Reproductive Medicine.

"I've never had a patient say, `Hey, what about this cloning?' My sense is that there is very little, if any, patient interest in cloning as a treatment for infertility."

The ASRM argues it is "irresponsible and unethical" to offer "false hope" to infertile patients with an unsafe or untested procedure.

"It would be tantamount to malpractice to try it on humans right now. ... It's never been tried in monkeys and you're going to try it in humans? And have these malformed births? For some chemist (Clonaid's Boisselier) who has no biologic experience to to do it in humans ... they're scientifically out of their mind."

But he sympathizes with parents who have lost a child, or couples wanting to avoid genetic diseases carried by one partner.

If reproductive cloning could be made safe, and if the ethical pros and cons were vetted, says Soules, "then I would honor requests if couples didn't have undue expectations." But, he adds, "I examine their motives."

For example, trying to "replace" a dead child is a "false pursuit," because uniqueness comes from both nature and nurture.

Fertility experts don't just make babies, he says. "It is our job also to protect a child. If people are duplicating themselves just because they think it would be neat, what's going to happen to that child?"

Urmi Saraiya, 51. Her husband, Sunil, a former engineer, has ALS and has been on a ventilator for six years. He can move only his eyes and part of his mouth. Her 14-year-old adopted son, Vishal, has Duchenne muscular dystrophy, and uses a wheelchair. Her daughter, Devki, 20, is a microbiology student at the University of Washington.

"I'm the type of person who, if there's a problem, I'll say, `Let's go take care of it.' So for me to see two of the people I love most ... to not be able to do anything for them it drives me nuts."

She believes embryonic stem-cell research could lead to help for her son, who has lost the use of his legs and is slowly losing the use of his hands. But cloning for reproductive purposes disturbs her the engineering hubris of adding "one part of x and two parts of y" to create the perfect child.

"It's good to have some mystery about what each child is going to be." Yet she doesn't condemn its potential for others. "Everybody's situation is so different."

Before they adopted Vishal, she and her husband spent five years going through infertility treatment. "It took an enormous, enormous toll on us. ... If you asked me the question of cloning today, my answer would be no. But maybe at that point, I might have said yes. I wanted another kid. If it was foolproof, yes, maybe I would have done it."

Camille De Blasi, education director for Human Life of Washington and director of its Center for Life Principles.

"If we really believed that we, as human beings, are worthy and dignified because we are each uniquely created to love one another and to be loved into all eternity by God, then we would have no use for cloning."

But if we see ourselves as "mere animals" whose aim is to function without flaw, "then cloning will probably be our fate."

Cloning "violates the sacred integrity of the human person, who is not just body, but also an immortal soul," she said. And it treats that person like an object loved for his physical attributes. It teaches parents to love their children "because he looks just like Johnny would have, or because she is exactly the height, weight, IQ and color that I wanted."

Dennis Norton, 56. He is a former computer programmer and athlete, a Catholic, and an eight-year survivor of an inherited form of ALS. His muscles will eventually waste to the point that he'll be unable to breathe.

"Cloning? It's a political red herring."

Conservatives are counting on the "yuck" factor, he says, invoking Frankenstein and "bumper-sticker thoughts" that demean the real issues.

"You're taking the DNA from one person and putting into the egg of another person. It doesn't mean you're creating Frankenstein's monster."

He worries that the rhetoric about human cloning will hamper or halt embryonic stem-cell research that could save future ALS patients.

As a Catholic, he believes that life is "a very sacred thing." But he believes a frozen embryo is only "potential life," and that using it for research is akin to organ donation.

Therapeutic cloning could be justified, he says, as a way to cure disease, or to prevent passing along a genetic disease such as his own. "I wouldn't wish this on anybody. But if it's used for anything else, then it's morally wrong."

Yet if cloning for reproductive purposes were safe, he says the morality of using it would depend on intent: If it were the only way to to bring children into loving household, "go for it."

Dr. Clarence Braddock III, an associate professor of medicine and ethics at the University of Washington.

"Many people believe that if you create an embryo, you've created life, and to destroy that embryo for any purpose even research would be wrong."

Still, the notion of cloning embryos for harvesting stem cells strikes many as less troubling than cloning "an entire person," he says. Most Americans support the use of cloning technology with frozen embryos with the couple's permission for stem-cell research to help people who are paralyzed or who have destructive diseases.

"I think that's a reasonable approach. The Supreme Court said life doesn't begin until the second trimester that's our common, accepted definition. We allow abortion to occur before that point. That doesn't mean everybody agrees with it, but in a society with a wide range of viewpoints, public policy can't be held hostage to the views of a minority."

If the government doesn't fund such research, he says, it abdicates the ability to set guidelines.

"Then private industry will step into the void, and you'll have biotech firms supporting stem-cell research, not just motivated by pure scientific interest, but by the profit motive," he says. And private research wouldn't be made available to competing scientists, "so the progress of development is much slower."

© 2001