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Dr. Samuel Wood, head of a research team that says it has succeeded in creating human clones for use in embryonic stem-cell research, believes he’s a “highly ethical” scientist. Pope Benedict XVI has a very different assessment.
BY TOM MCFEELYCONTRIBUTING EDITOR
LA JOLLA, Calif. — Dr. Samuel Wood, head of a research team
that says it has succeeded in creating human clones for use in embryonic
stem-cell research, believes he’s a “highly ethical” scientist.
Pope Benedict XVI has a very different assessment of the
morality of Wood’s research.
In an address Jan. 31 to participants in the annual plenary
session of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith Jan. 31, the Pope
denounced cloning and embryonic stem-cell research.
“When human beings in the weakest and most defenseless stage
of their existence are selected, abandoned, killed or used as pure ‘biological
matter,’” said the Holy Father, “how can it be denied that they are no longer
being treated as ‘someone’ but as ‘something,’ thus placing the very concept of
human dignity in doubt?”
According to pro-life bioethicists, the criticism directed
at Wood’s research highlights the advantages of the groundbreaking new “direct
reprogramming” technique of creating stem cells from skin cells donated by
“With reprogramming you have a cost-effective,
scientifically simple way of doing the same thing that would be pursued with
human cloning,” said Legionary Father Thomas Berg, who is a member of the
ethics committee of New York’s Empire State Stem Cell Board, which oversees
$600 million in research funding. “There is simply no need for that.”
Wood is a fertility specialist and chief executive officer
of La Jolla-based Stemagen, a private stem-cell research and development
In a Jan. 29 interview with the Register, Wood confirmed his
research team had created several human clones using the “somatic cell nuclear
transfer” technique used to clone some species of animals. No one has
previously succeeded in cloning humans.
Wood said Stemagen “has made progress beyond what we’ve
reported” in creating stem-cell lines from the cloned embryos, but said it will
take several months of additional testing to verify that the company has
produced stem-cell lines that are viable for research purposes.
Wood said he had “no ethical concerns” about creating human
clones and killing them in order to harvest their stem cells.
Cloned embryos created through nuclear transfer — and
early-stage embryos that develop naturally through the process of fertilization
— are only “potential human life,” Wood argued. Since only about 10%-20% of
naturally fertilized eggs manage to survive to birth anyway, he said, “no one
can look at a given embryo and say that it could lead to a live birth.”
According to Wood, this “potential life” is not of equal
value to the suffering caused to millions of people suffering from diseases
like Alzheimer’s and muscular dystrophy that might be cured by therapies derived
from stem-cell research.
Unlike embryos, those disease victims are individuals “with
uncontroversially defined human life,” Wood said.
“It’s simple for me,” he said. “A cloned embryo that may
never be able to lead to a live birth is so secondary to the reality of what
these people go through.”
Why It’s Wrong
Princeton law professor Robert George, co-author of the new
book Embryo: A Defense of Human Life, says Wood’s arguments are comprehensively
Wood’s assertion that a life is “uncontroversially” human
after birth, and is only “potential” life during its earliest embryonic stage
of development “is simply arbitrary,” said George, who is a member of the
President’s Council for Bioethics.
From the time of its creation as an embryo, George said, science
has established that a human individual retains a constant biological identity
as it progresses in successive stages of development to birth and eventually to
And the fact that many embryos die before birth is
irrelevant to their intrinsic humanity, George said.
He noted that in some parts of the world with high infant
mortality, 30% to 40% of babies die before becoming toddlers.
“Would we then conclude that because of a naturally high
death rate, that infants aren’t human persons with dignity?” said George. “Your
ability to survive isn’t what makes you a human being.”
George said Wood’s argument about the suffering of victims
of diseases is similarly flawed.
If it’s legitimate to kill an embryo to provide medical
treatment for more developmentally advanced individuals who are
“uncontroversially” accepted as human persons, George said it can also be
argued that it’s permissible to kill newborn infants — who lack adult
consciousness and other adult capacities — in order to harvest their organs for
“Logically, his argument just won’t work,” said George. “It
can be applied at any stage of development, as long as somebody is going to
make the status of some human individual ‘controversial.’”
Furthermore, George said Wood’s argument about the relative
value of embryonic life vs. the suffering of disease victims is completely
“He has no expertise in this area,” George said. “These
claims about value are not scientific claims. … These are claims that require
philosophical or religious or some other non-scientific justification.”
In November, teams of researchers in Japan and Wisconsin
announced that they had succeeded in “reprogramming” adult skin cells into
becoming stem cells with the same “pluripotent” capacity as embryonic stem
cells to form all tissues in the human body.
Wood said the FDA would never approve therapies utilizing
cells created with the reprogramming technique employed by the Japanese and
Wisconsin researchers, because it involves the introduction into the cells of
small amounts of viral genetic material that could produce cancers.
However, he conceded that if researchers “can find a way
around those scientific barriers, then I think that’s probably what people
would do — it’s a lot simpler to do than any techniques that involve embryos.”
Other medical researchers said that alternative techniques
already exist to induce the direct reprogramming of adult cells into
pluri-potent stem cells without using the potentially carcinogenic viral
“These concerns can almost certainly be addressed using
currently available scientific technologies, “Maureen Condic, associate
professor of neurobiology and anatomy at the University of Utah, said in
November after the direct reprogramming research findings were announced.
But Father Berg predicts some researchers will press onward
with human cloning in order to conduct various kinds of life-destroying
experiments on the embryos they create, despite the availability of alternative
(CNS contributed to this story.)
Tom McFeely is based in
Victoria, British Columbia.