WASHINGTON (BP)–Scientists in California reportedly have cloned human embryos from adult skin cells, apparently taking a step toward producing personalized, replacement stem cells to treat diseases.
Observers, however, variously described the research as unethical and unnecessary.
Scientists at Stemagen, a stem cell research and development firm in La Jolla, Calif., reported Jan. 17 they had broken a previous barrier by creating, and carefully documenting, for the first time a human embryo clone. They did so by using skin cells from two men, in combination with eggs from women, to produce embryos, five who grew to the “blastocyst” stage, which occurs at five or six days. DNA “fingerprinting” confirmed three of the five embryos were clones, according to Stemagen.
It marked the first time cells from adults were used to produce cloned embryos, according to The Washington Post. British researchers developed cloned human embryos into “blastocysts” in 2005, but they used cells from other human embryos, The Post reported.
The Stemagen research team did not harvest stem cells from the cloned embryos, however. Extracting stem cells from an embryo destroys the tiny human being.
The clones were made using a method called somatic cell nuclear transfer (SCNT), a term some scientists prefer to use instead of the word “cloning,” believing the public will find the former term more acceptable. Dolly the sheep was created using the SCNT method.
The unethical nature of the research again cries out for a legal ban, said pro-life bioethicist C. Ben Mitchell.
“It’s time to draw a bold, bright line in the sand: No cloning of human embryos!” said Mitchell, director of the Center for Bioethics and Human Dignity in suburban Chicago and a consultant for the Southern Baptist Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission. “To clone a human being either for the purpose of research or reproduction is morally reprehensible. If this announcement doesn’t result in federal legislation to ban the cloning of human embryos, then welcome to the ‘brave new world.'”
Richard Doerflinger of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops told The Post, “This study seems to confirm that human cloning … is technically possible. It does not show that a viable or normal embryonic stem cell line can be derived this way, or that any such cell has ‘therapeutic’ value. It does not answer the ethical or social questions about the mass production of developing human lives in order to destroy them.”
Another critic, Marcy Darnovsky of the Center for Genetics and Society in Oakland, Calif., pointed to successes in alternative research. “In light of the recent cell reprogramming developments, cloning-based stem cell research is less justified than ever,” she said, according to The Post.
Meanwhile, Doug Melton of the Harvard Stem Cell Institute told the Associated Press he “found it difficult to determine what was substantially new.” The “next big advance will be to create a human embryonic stem cell line” from embryo clones, he said. “This has yet to be achieved.”
Andrew French, Stemagen’s chief scientific officer, defended the work, however, saying his team’s work “is not merely a technical improvement on previous research in this area.”
“No other scientific group has documented the cloning of an adult human cell, much less been able to grow it to the blastocyst stage, … the stage that yields the cells (the inner cell mass) from which embryonic stem cell lines are made,” French said in a written release.
There is no federal prohibition on any form of human cloning. Sens. Sam Brownback, R.-Kan., and Mary Landrieu, D.-La., as well as Rep. Dave Weldon, R.-Fla., have promoted in recent years legislation banning cloning for both research and reproductive purposes. The House of Representatives passed such measures in 2001 and 2003, but the Senate has yet to vote on a comprehensive ban.
Last year, Brownback, along with Landrieu, and Weldon reintroduced the Human Cloning Prohibition Act, S. 1036 and H.R. 2564, in the Senate and House, respectively.
More than 20 countries have banned the creation of cloned embryos. They include Canada, France and Germany.
Pro-lifers say the new work was unnecessary in light of groundbreaking research from
two teams, one in Wisconsin and the other in Japan, who in November reported they had reprogrammed skin cells from adult human beings into the functional equivalent of embryonic stem cells. In December, scientists at Harvard Medical School and Children’s Hospital in Boston reported replicating the reprogramming research.
The technique, known as “somatic cell reprogramming,” does not require the destruction of human embryos and avoids the ethical dilemmas.
Stemagen says it is seeking to develop “patient-specific” embryonic stem cells that will repair a person’s tissue and organs without the problem of rejection. Its new research was published in the journal Stem Cells.
Stem cells are the body’s master cells that can develop into other cells and tissues, giving hope for the development of cures for a variety of diseases and other ailments.
Despite their potential, embryonic stem cells have yet to treat any diseases in human beings and have been plagued by the development of tumors in lab animals. The use of stem cells from non-embryonic sources –- such as umbilical cord blood, placentas, fat and bone marrow –- has produced treatments for at least 73 human ailments, according to Do No Harm, a coalition promoting ethics in research.
Compiled by Tom Strode, Washington bureau chief for Baptist Press.