If you thought work on human cloning and embryonic stem cell research went out of style with the discovery of induced pluripotent stem cells, watch out. The pro-cloning people, who never lost their lust for toying with human embryos, are back.
Writing for Science Magazine, Gretchen Vogel titled an article, “Human Stem Cells From Cloning, Finally.” She seems delighted that researchers may be able to treat humans like farm animals:
This time it looks like it’s for real: Researchers have made personalized human embryonic stem (ES) cells with a method similar to how Dolly the sheep was cloned—though with an added jolt of caffeine.
The success, which produced stem cells carrying DNA belonging to a baby with an inherited disorder, comes 9 years after South Korean researchers claimed in a famously faked paper that they had achieved a similar feat. After their story unraveled, a handful of researchers continued trying, but human eggs, or oocytes, responded poorly to the techniques that have worked in sheep, mice, cows, pigs, and other animals.
Now, thanks to years of work in monkey cells, a group led by Shoukhrat Mitalipov of the Oregon National Primate Research Center in Beaverton reports a recipe that works for human cells.
Of course, there are those people troubled by the ethics of such research:
While welcomed by many researchers, who envision creating personalized stem cells for therapies or research, the achievement is also likely to stir up old ethical debates about human SCNT [somatic cell nuclear transfer], including whether it should be regulated to prevent attempts at reproductive human cloning. In the short term, that shouldn’t be a worry, Mitalipov says.
Who’s worried? After all, the scientists don’t really want to clone human beings for a Star Wars army — at least not in the short term. They just want to get their hands on those precious embryonic stem cells (ES), and this “success” opens the door for them. Even so, “the team had surprisingly good success generating embryos,” Vogel said.
But this begs the question: who needs ES cells, when induced pluripotent stem cells (iPS) are just as good without the ethical problems?
This high efficiency could mean that SCNT is not as impractical for creating personalized human stem cells as many observers had expected. But it faces stiff competition from the current method of making genetically matched pluripotent cells, called induced pluripotent stem (iPS) cells. By adding extra copies of several genes to skin or other cells, scientists can reprogram them to behave like ES cells. That technique is much easier than SCNT, and it doesn’t require a supply of human oocytes. (The oocytes used in Mitalipov’s experiments were donated by healthy volunteers for research purposes; donors were paid $5000 for their time and trouble, the local rate paid to egg donors for fertility treatments.)
Some researchers have found evidence, however, that there may be subtle but potentially significant differences between the genes expressed in iPS cells and ES cells derived from embryos. The chance to compare SCNT-derived human ES cells with iPS counterparts is one of the most important aspects of the new advance, Daley says. “There may be advantages to SCNT-ES cells, but this must be rigorously proven,” he says. In practice, he says, making iPS cells “remains considerably easier.”
So just on the supposition that there might be a difference, some researchers are willing to destroy human embryos to find out. Does that sound ethical? She quoted a researcher who thinks both methods are “useful” — the language of pragmatism, not ethics. Vogel had no further ethical qualms.
To the editors at New Scientist, it’s “back to the future” all over again.
A few years ago, therapeutic cloning looked like the future of medicine. It promised to realise the dream of repairing damaged tissues and organs using a patient’s own cells. But it also had a dark side: producing its supply of stem cells required the creation of human embryos which were later destroyed.
What did Nature say about this? David Cyranoski wrote in Nature this week wearing ethics on his sleeve from the first paragraph:
It was hailed some 15 years ago as the great hope for a biomedical revolution: the use of cloning techniques to create perfectly matched tissues that would someday cure ailments ranging from diabetes to Parkinson’s disease. Since then, the approach has been enveloped in ethical debate, tainted by fraud and, in recent years, overshadowed by a competing technology. Most groups gave up long ago on the finicky core method — production of patient-specific embryonic stem cells (ESCs) from cloning. A quieter debate followed: do we still need ‘therapeutic’ cloning?
Mitalipov’s experiment “is sure to rekindle that debate,” Cyranoski continued. He described how Mitalipov used a “university advertising campaign” to attract women to donate eggs for his lab at the Health and Science University in Beaverton, Oregon. (He first practiced on skin cells obtained from fetuses.) His method sounds a little Frankensteinish, using electric jolts and caffeine to coax the stubborn skin cells to form stable stem cell lines. It took longer to get human cells to work than monkey cells, he said, because much of the time was spent “navigating US regulations on embryo research.”
Mitalipov is apparently most concerned about making his process more efficient, why? to attract funding:
Such improvements might be necessary to convince people that SCNT research is still worthwhile. Egg donors for the experiment received US$3,000–7,000 in compensation. This is expensive and, according to some bioethicists, risks creating an organ trade that preys on the poor. Because the technique requires the destruction of embryos, funds from the US National Institutes of Health (NIH) cannot be used to make or study SCNT-derived cell lines, hampering further clinical research. (Mitalipov maintains a separate laboratory for NIH-funded research.)
Another “sticking point” is public fear of human cloning. Stem-cell opponents might “capitalize on” such fears, the article says. Mitalipov is trying to convince opponents that creation of a human clone, like Dolly the sheep, is not possible (at least, at this time).
But other stem-cell researchers are wondering why Mitalipov is wasting his time. “Honestly, the most surprising thing [about this paper] is that somebody is still doing human [SCNT] in the era of iPS cells,” said a specialist in regenerative medicine. Watchers will be waiting to see whether iPS and ES cells really differ in significant ways.
New Scientist thinks the ethical battles will be muted during the Obama era:
Will we now see a revival of the stem cell culture wars in the US? Probably, but they should be less polarised this time round. The Bush-era laws were relaxed by President Obama in 2009 to no great hullabaloo. The fact that the breakthrough work was done in Oregon may also help: home-grown success has a way of changing hearts and minds. What is clear is that we have entered a new phase in the long-running stem cell soap opera. Expect drama aplenty.
But if this is a “soap opera,” it’s one where innocent human lives are at stake — and not only the lives of fertilized human embryos, but potential adult clones. Live Science asked if this might lead to human cloning someday. What worried reporter Rachael Rattner more, the pragmatics, or the principle of the thing?
Although it would be unethical, experts say it is likely biologically possible to clone a human being. But even putting ethics aside, the sheer amount of resources needed to do it is a significant barrier.
Rattner concentrated on practical problems with human cloning. “It’s like sending your baby up in a rocket knowing there’s a 50–50 chance it’s going to blow up,” she quoted one researcher quipping. “It’s grossly unethical.” Practical problems, though, can be remedied with enough research. If Rattner is willing to put ethics aside rhetorically, the day could come when unscrupulous, pragmatic researchers with government funding will put it aside for real.
This story is very disturbing on the heels of the Kermit Gosnell trial. Remember that abortion was sold in the 1970s in terms of concern for poor women who needed access to “reproductive health” needs. The callous disregard for human life that resulted from that slippery slope has shocked the nation with revelations about Gosnell’s and other abortion mills described as “houses of horror” by investigators, who found abortion doctors twisting the heads off babies born alive, leaving them struggling for 20 minutes before severing their spinal cords with scissors, and telling mothers that the dead baby in the womb after chemical abortion is just “meat in a crockpot.” Horrified nurses would find babies swimming in toilets and packed in bloody bags in refrigerators. Do you think for a minute that “sanctity of human life” will fare any better among those who want free rein with human embryos?
Speaking of abortion, Tanya Lewis wrote an interesting article for Live Science about ultrasound and how it has changed attitudes about abortion. While ultrasound can backfire in cultures that want to use it for sex selection (aborting many female babies), for the most part it has given expectant mothers a view the abortionists never told them about: their baby is a living human being.
Ultrasound has enjoyed an enthusiastic reception by pregnant women. In addition to revealing the baby’s health, the images themselves provide a keepsake. “Overwhelmingly, pregnant women expect to be scanned, and are moved and excited by seeing the fetus,” Nicolson said — especially if the baby moves. In fact, Nicolson said, some women report not feeling pregnant until they’ve seen the ultrasound image.
Seeing a developing fetus has a humanizing effect, too. Donald, the physician who helped develop the technology, was a devout High Anglican, and knew the images carried moral significance for women contemplating having an abortion.
Lewis cited anecdotal evidence that expectant mothers who see their baby with ultrasound are less likely to terminate their pregnancy. Each moving baby that the mother rejoices to see on the ultrasound scanner was a single cell just a few months earlier. The DNA for a full human is there in both cases; the difference between a moving baby in the womb and a fertilized cell is only a matter of time.