More MS news articles for Dec 2001

David Dubuisson : Cloning May Hold the Key to Vital Cures

December 2, 2001
Greensboro News & Record

The U.S. Senate once again fulfilled its intended mission last week, fending off a knee-jerk effort to rush into law a sweeping ban on human cloning. In doing so, senators frustrated both the president and the House of Representatives, which passed the ban last July. Senate leaders had already decided to take up cloning after the first of the year when, a week ago, a Massachusetts company released reports on its human therapeutic cloning research.

President Bush took the opportunity of a Rose Garden photo-op Tuesday to summarily denounce the research. "The use of embryos to clone is wrong," he said. "We should not as a society grow life to destroy it."

Even assuming the president meant to say "human life," that's a sweeping dismissal of a question that many thoughtful people think deserves examination and debate.

Unlike the startling revelations last summer by three separate investigators who claim to be trying to clone humans, the work of Advanced Cell Technology Inc. is aimed at producing a source of stem cells for treating a range of human diseases. It is possible to reject the idea of cloning babies - as I do and most people around the world seem to do - and still be open to what has come to be called "therapeutic cloning." In this case that means taking donated eggs and manipulating them chemically, rather than fertilizing them with sperm, so that they produce new "stem cells."

Research on stem cells obtained without cloning has shown the potential for cultivating new cells for specific uses - nerve cells to heal spinal cord or brain damage, for example, or pancreatic cells to produce insulin in diabetics.

One barrier to stem cell therapy is the body's habit of rejecting foreign cells. What makes therapeutic cloning research so interesting is that, in theory at least, stem cells derived by cloning the patient's own cells would be more likely accepted by the body.

Stem cell research is going forward using either cells from aborted fetuses or surplus embryos cultured in the course of fertility treatments. Since President Bush's well-publicized decision last summer, a limited amount of it is being done under federal research grants. The president confined this to work with stem cells already cultivated prior to his order. Ostensibly, his stipulation prevented further embryos being fertilized for research underwritten by taxpayers. Research by private companies was unaffected.

Cloning research is also proceeding in the private sector, beyond public view except when those involved decide it's in their interest to go public. There's some mystery about why Advanced Cell Technology launched its media blitz, including an article in Scientific American (January issue, available online at Although the company did its best to paint a hopeful picture, the news was essentially bad. None of its attempts to clone stem cells had succeeded. At best, it could report some progress in "activating" embryos in the right general direction.

What the company got for its effort was a new push in Washington to outlaw what it is doing.

Perhaps this was a calculated gamble to try to pique Wall Street's interest by trumpeting some progress in the laboratory, however small. Advanced Cell's president, Michael West, admits, "We're going to require hundreds of millions in investments before we become profitable."

Whether or not the hostility that met the announcements will stimulate investor interest, it certainly ought to inspire an ethical debate that goes well beyond knee-jerk reactions.

For example, ACT contends that conventional thinking about the sanctity of human life needs to be amended to cover what it is doing. Ronald M. Green, director of the Ethics Institute at Dartmouth College and chair of ACT's ethics advisory board, argues, "unlike an embryo, a cloned organism is not the result of fertilization of an egg by a sperm. It is a new type of biological entity never before seen in nature. Although it possesses some potential for developing into a full human being, this capacity is very limited."

Theoretically, the "cloned organism" could be implanted into a womb and, as with Dolly the sheep, develop into a human embryo. But in therapeutic cloning, what the company euphemistically calls an "activated egg" is separated into stem cells before acquiring any human attributes.

Is this mere self-serving sophistry? Or is there a valid distinction to be made, given the enormous potential of therapeutic cloning and stem cell therapy to save and prolong human life? I think the question deserves more extensive and probing examination than it has received so far, either in the political or the popular arenas.

There is no guarantee that science will wait for Congress to reach a reasoned decision, but neither is there any reason to assume that an act of Congress can or will stop science in its tracks. What it might do is deter responsible, restrained research under public scrutiny and leave the field open for surreptitious, secretive work by those with dubious motives.

David DuBuisson is associate editor of the News & Record.

(C) 2001 Greensboro News & Record