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Rethinking research cloning?

Genetic Crossroads
February 23rd, 2006

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 cloning?

Though 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.

Fortunately, 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.

An article 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' time."

In South Korea, a 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 transfer."

Related article:

"South Korean Cloning Scandal Takes Toll on Whistle-Blowers," Los Angeles Times (February 16).


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