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The Clone Killers

California Claim Fuels Stem-Cell Debate

BY TOM MCFEELY

CONTRIBUTING EDITOR

February 10-16, 2008 Issue | Posted 2/5/08 at 1:46 PM

 

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 adults.

“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 company.

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 unsound.

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 adulthood.

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 transplantation.

“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 unscientific.

“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.”


The Alternative

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 material.

“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 approaches.


(CNS contributed to this story.)

Tom McFeely is based in

Victoria, British Columbia.