Of all the peculiarities
of the stem cell debate, perhaps the strangest lies with the technique
variously known as research cloning, biomedical cloning, or somatic
cell nuclear transfer. Only a tiny portion of the work on embryonic
stem cells taking place today involves research cloning, yet it
accounts for nearly all the serious problems associated with stem
cell research—the practice of putting women at risk to obtain
their eggs, the prospect of medical treatments unaffordable to all
but the extremely wealthy, and the risk of cloned embryos being
misused in efforts to produce cloned or genetically modified children.
Yet cloned human
embryos have become a sought-after prize, and researchers have declared
a renewed "cloning race" now that the claims of Hwang
Woo-Suk and his colleagues have been discredited. Hwang, possibly
along with other members of his research team, committed fraud and
deception in pursuit of the fortune and fame they believed research
cloning would deliver. Women are being asked to undergo significant
health risks to provide eggs to enable it. Advocates of stem cell
research have used it to make fantastical promises of miracle cures
and "personal repair kits." Should we be rethinking research
many researchers acknowledge (at least privately) that such claims
about individually tailored stem cell treatments are untenable—if
only because their cost would make them commercially unrealizable—they
still abound. In the sales-pitch environment that has resulted,
clear thinking and reasoned discussion are difficult. A more realistic
and limited case for research cloning, which presents it as a tool
for investigation of cellular development or drug efficacy, would
produce more nuanced understanding and more productive deliberations.
Even in the
wake of the ongoing cloning scandal, in which unethical and illegal
conduct in the procurement of women's eggs figure large, many stem
cell advocates continue to collapse the important distinction between
research cloning and embryonic stem cell research in general—the
vast majority of which is conducted with cell lines derived from
embryos created but not needed for fertility treatments. Journalistic
accounts often unknowingly echo this misleading conflation.
A recent example
is an op-ed
in the February 16 New York Times by Dartmouth neuroscientist
Michael Gazzaniga. The piece begins by accurately noting that President
Bush, in his State of the Union address, misleadingly used the phrase
"human cloning in all its forms" as "code, a way
of conflating very different things: reproductive cloning and biomedical
cloning." But Gazzaniga then proceeds to move his own argument—that
the cloning scandal should have no impact on the conduct of research
in this country—by blurring the difference between stem cell
research and biomedical cloning.
some realism seems to be penetrating the research cloning debate.
A few closely involved commentators are now acknowledging its impracticality,
and the "minor role" it is likely to play in embryonic
stem cell research.
by prominent stem cell researchers in the New England Journal
of Medicine calls into question the emphasis that many stem
cell research advocates and scientists have placed on the cloning
technique, even while it supports continuing work in the area and
downplays the significance of the cloning scandal. The Burnham Institute's
Evan Snyder and Jeanne Loring argue that the Hwang scandal shows
that "the system of peer scrutiny works" and reject what
they call "untutored government regulation." But they
go on to write that "the specific indications for SCNT in our
work remain uncertain….SCNT…plays only a minor role in
the wider discipline of stem-cell biology—a branch of developmental
biology that has no lack of other challenges to occupy its practitioners'
In South Korea,
presidential ethics panel said early this month that it will
reconsider whether to permit research cloning in that country. "The
fabrication of stem cells by Hwang prompted some committee members
to question whether it is possible to put the research into practical
use," said Cho Han-ik, vice president of the committee. "We
discussed whether to even allow research of somatic cell nucleus
Korean Cloning Scandal Takes Toll on Whistle-Blowers,"
Los Angeles Times (February 16).