Cloning, After Hwang

In South Korea, they’re calling it “Hwang-gate.” That comes as no surprise after the South Korean government saw $63 million of government funding swallowed up in what has become one of the most sensational scientific frauds in recent memory.

Only three months ago the world still believed that Dr. Woo-Suk Hwang, a specialist in veterinary medicine at Seoul National University, had seized one of the most coveted of biotech holy grails: successful therapeutic cloning.

In therapeutic cloning, stem cells are culled from six-day-old cloned embryos (killing them in the process). Researchers would then grow tissues from the cells for future use in tissue-replacement therapies (everything from corneal injury to Parkinson’s disease to spinal cord injury). A perfect genetic match to the person who donated the cloned cells, the tissues would not be rejected by the donor’s immune system.

In an article published in the journal Science in February of 2004, Hwang announced that he created human clones (using the same method that gave the world Dolly the sheep), and then derived embryonic stem cells from them — a feat hailed as a scientific advance of epic proportions in the emerging field of stem-cell therapy.

In May of 2005, again in Science, Hwang reported a tenfold decrease in the number of human eggs required for his cloning process. He also claimed to have produced 11 new lines of embryonic stem cells from approximately 30 cloned human embryos — or so his story went.

Investigators at Seoul National University confirmed in late December that all 11 of Hwang’s stem cells lines were fakes — this after previous revelations that he had pressured a female research assistant into donating her own eggs for the original cloning attempts. A one-time national hero in South Korea and poster boy of the international pro-cloning movement, Hwang resigned in disgrace. On Jan. 10, further revelations dealt the pro-cloning establishment the dreaded, if not unexpected, blow: The original 2004 report of successful therapeutic cloning was also a fabrication.

What does all this mean for the pro-cloning establishment and for embryonic stem-cell research in general?

First, it means the push is on to make therapeutic cloning happen. While most scientific journals agree that Hwang-gate has set the field of therapeutic cloning back for years (never mind that Hwang was “the field”!), the setback has not broken the spirits of would-be cloners. Robert Lanza, medical director of Advanced Cell Technology in Worcester, Mass. (whose own initial forays into cloning in 2001 did not withstand scientific scrutiny), told the Washington Post in January that Advanced Cell will renew their therapeutic cloning efforts.

“The race is back on,” said Lanza, “and the United States has a second chance to do it right and win.” (After all, with Hwang now out of the running, the Nobel Prize for therapeutic cloning is once again up for grabs.)

In addition, we can expect advocates of embryonic stem-cell research to demand access to the so-called “surplus” embryos from in-vitro fertilization. They will continue to insist on the urgency of using these leftover embryos to create new lines of embryonic stem cells, arguing that lines currently available are becoming depleted and showing signs of genetic abnormalities. They will likely suggest that these problems are now only exacerbated by the setback in therapeutic cloning research.

Currently, the federal government funds research only on those lines of human embryonic stem cells created before Aug. 29, 2001. Pressure is already growing in Congress to expand the current policy to include, among other things, the funding of research on these unwanted embryos. It is deeply disappointing that a number of otherwise pro-life senators (among them, Republicans Orrin Hatch of Utah and Senate Majority Leader William Frist of Tennessee) appear ready to make that Faustian deal.

Curiously, however, the vast majority of IVF surplus embryos are designated solely for reproductive efforts. Only 2.8% or roughly 11,000 of the approximately 400,000 spare embryos are designated for possible use in research. Of these, only a small percentage would produce a new stem-cell line. We rightly ask, then, what is motivating the push to sacrifice the in-vitro fertilization embryos if ultimately so few would be available or useful to researchers? Answer: breaking down public and Congressional resistance to using leftover embryos is a crucial step toward garnering public acceptance of the creation (and destruction) of new embryos for research. As they await the heyday of therapeutic cloning, researchers have myriad reasons to embark on a research regime of manufacturing human embryos in vitro on an industrial scale — reasons that often have nothing to do with potential therapies.

Key to this strategy is to convince the American public that if researchers deliberately keep the embryo (cloned or manufactured in vitro) from implanting in a uterus, it lacks moral worth. “If it can’t implant, it’s not human” — such is now the mantra among many embryonic stem-cell research and cloning advocates. Here, however, the non sequitur is obvious: Why should implantation, or any other arbitrary developmental benchmark, designate the threshold of intrinsic and incalculable worth?

More importantly, Hwang’s fraud could constitute a watershed moment for adult stem-cell research. While it is possible today to create embryonic cloned human beings, it might still prove impossible to derive usable and sustainable stem cells from them. The coming years may well be the definitive proving ground in which adult stem-cell research addresses an array of the most troubling diseases more quickly, safely and effectively than by embryonic stem-cell research. Most promising here are stem cells found in human umbilical-cord blood and bone marrow. In fact, a dozen recent scientific studies point to these as likely sources of stem cells just as versatile as embryonic stem cells. On Dec. 20, President Bush signed a vital, but mostly ignored bill (authored by Rep. Chris Smith, R-N.J.) authorizing $344 million for the collection and banking of cord-blood stem cells and their use in stem-cell therapy.

Therapeutic cloning, notwithstanding the intrinsic evil of its proposed means, does pursue a genuinely good end. Would it be possible to pursue this curative potential while avoiding the ethical pitfalls? As it turns out, the answer is Yes. America, indeed, might still have a way to “do it right.”

One of the most promising approaches is called cell reprogramming. In reprogramming, scientists propose to take any cell in our body and reprogram the nucleus of the cell such that the result is the equivalent of an embryonic stem cell — like reformatting the hard drive of a computer. The beauty of reprogramming is that it holds out the same promise as therapeutic cloning — tailor-made stem cells to match the patient — without killing embryos. In August of 2005, Dr. Kevin Eggan of Harvard University was able to show partial success in reprogramming using human cells, and research in this area is advancing aggressively.

Altered nuclear transfer is another approach. This technique proposes to take the same technique used in cloning (transfer of a body cell nucleus to an egg cell with its nucleus removed), but this time for a good end. In altered nuclear transfer, the nucleus of a normal adult body cell is catastrophically altered to impede normal embryo formation. This nucleus is then implanted into the enucleated egg. The product of this procedure — unlike cloning — would not be an embryo, but a disordered biological artifact, capable of yielding cells as versatile as embryonic stem cells, but otherwise akin to a tumor.

In October 2005, the journal Nature reported that researchers at the Massachusetts Institute for Technology had, for the first time, used altered nuclear transfer in laboratory mice to derive a line of “fully competent” cells equivalent to mouse embryonic stem cells. This process is a broad conceptual proposal originated by Dr. William Hurlbut of Stanford University, a member of the President’s Council on Bioethics. A particular version of altered nuclear transfer called oocyte assisted reprogramming has gained tentative support from numerous Catholic moral theologians, pending further research in animals.

Today we stand at the threshold of a future in which embryo-destructive research could become commonplace. Once our nation vouchsafes the creation and destruction of human life for research, there will be no “slippery slope” to go down, because we’ll already be at the bottom. To avoid such a future, we must demand that lawmakers pursue a complete federal ban on human cloning. Such bans should be pursued simultaneously at the State level.  We can also urge our representatives to enact legislation that will open up federal funding for research into alternatives such as altered nuclear transfer and reprogramming. Research into these alternatives, along with continued advances in adult stem-cell research, may well render moot the putative need for therapeutic cloning and increased lines of embryonic stem cells. In educating ourselves on these issues, and bringing that knowledge to the voting booth, we can forge a future which protects human embryos from the demands of unprincipled scientific research.

Legionary Father Thomas Berg

is associate professor of moral

philosophy at the Center for Higher Studies of the Legion of Christ in

Thornwood, NY, and executive

director of the Westchester Institute for

Ethics & the Human Person.

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