Rebecca Taylor is guest blogging here this month. Rebecca is a Technologist in Molecular Biology, MB(ASCP) and a practicing Catholic. She has been writing and speaking about Catholicism and biotechnology for five years at her blog Mary Meets Dolly. This is the third installment.
The Clone Wars are back. And I don’t mean that the Stars Wars movies are out on Blu Ray. Like a bad case of head lice, just when you think the debates about human cloning are over, they come back. And with them come piles of misinformation from the media on the science and ethics surrounding human cloning research. Minnesota has proposed a true ban on human cloning and like magic every media outlet anywhere near a lake has decided it is their job to obfuscate the issue and confuse the public. So while I really do not want to rehash the cloning issue, I think it is time for a refresher on what cloning is, what it isn’t and why we need to care. Stick with me. I will try to make this as painless as possible!
The technical term for cloning is somatic cell nuclear transfer or SCNT. SCNT is the process used to clone Dolly the sheep. SCNT creates a cloned embryo from an egg and an adult cell like a skin cell. (More on SCNT.) Contrary to popular belief human cloning is not banned in the United States. In fact researchers in most states can clone human embryos with SCNT all day long. With H.F. 998 The Human Cloning Prohibition Act, the Minnesota legislature is trying to ban all SCNT in humans. Opponents insist that H.F.998 will halt stem cell research.
The truth is that cloning research is independent of stem cell research, even the embryonic kind. Researchers can clone human embryos with no intention of using them for harvesting stem cells. Embryonic stem cell research can proceed just fine with embryos that were not made with cloning. Cloning is making genetically identical human embryos and stem cell research is research on stem cells. Scientifically speaking they have little to do with each other.
Linking human cloning with embryonic stem cell research is a red herring used to make sure a true ban on human cloning never makes it into law. Here is the ruse. Scientists say that to make embryonic stem cells that are genetically identical to the patient, the have to clone the patient with SCNT and harvest the stem cells from the cloned embryo. Using SCNT, they can create patient specific stem cells that the patient will not reject because they are genetically identical to the patient. (The genetically identical part is not actually true. A clone will always have genetic material leftover from the woman who donated the egg.) Researchers insist that a ban on SCNT in humans will hinder stem cell research.
Cue the media that intentionally misrepresents the cloning process and screams that a ban on human cloning will make stem cell research a felony. Reporters have been playing the stem cell research card for years. They report that SCNT is only cloning if the cloned embryo finds it way into a uterus. Politicians and advocates play along. They all lie and tell the public that SCNT is only cloning if a cloned baby results. In other words, cloning is only cloning if used in reproduction. If a cloned embryo is made with SCNT and then destroyed in research then magically it isn’t cloning anymore. Instead, SCNT is just stem cell research that will cure you, your mother, your second cousin and your dog. They insist that a ban on SCNT will destroy the pantheon of stem cell cures before it is ever built and anyone who says otherwise is a close-minded, religious idiot with no grasp of science whatsoever. Even the National Catholic Reporter got it wrong.
What they will never tell you is the truth. SCNT is the act of cloning. SCNT creates a cloned embryo irregardless of the fate of that clone. Whether that cloned embryo is ripped apart for the stem cells inside or is implanted into a uterus, it was still cloned. The only difference between so-called therapeutic cloning and reproductive cloning is where the clone ends up. The cloning part is the same. (More on reproductive versus therapeutic cloning.) A true ban on human cloning bans all SCNT in humans.
They will never mention that SCNT takes eggs, lots and lots of human eggs. To get these eggs, young women’s health, fertility and sometimes even their lives are put at risk. Dr. Woo-Suk Hwang, the disgraced South Korean researcher, forced his own female researchers to donate their eggs for his research because they couldn’t get enough from the local IVF clinic.
They will also not tell you that after years of trying, cloning human embryos is tough and extracting a viable stem cell line form a cloned embryo is even tougher. To my knowledge, it has yet to be accomplished. So no one has ever been close to being treated with embryonic stem cells from a cloned embryo. Some scientists wonder if embryonic stem cells, cloned or otherwise, will ever be safe enough to treat patients because tumors have been reported in animal trial after animal trial. After years of delays over safety concerns, the very first embryonic stem cell trial is underway. It is only for a handful of patients and it is only to test the safety of the embryonic stem cells. All this is for stem cells from an embryo created the old-fashioned way with egg and sperm. I cannot imagine the delays for human trials with stem cells from a cloned embryo.
But the facts will not deter the bleeding hearts that cry that without cloning the cures will never come. They point to other, more enlightened countries, that are not as backward as we are with our archaic cloning and stem cell rules. Actually, many of those enlightened countries have banned SCNT in humans as recommended by the United Nations. Canada, Germany, The Netherlands, France and many many others, prohibit all SCNT in humans even for research. Whether or not these countries are farther ahead in stem cell treatments than the U.S. is debatable, but if they are it is because they do not waste their time and money on research that has not, and likely will never, treat a single patient. They are putting their efforts into adult stem cell research that has proven effective. Meanwhile we are still staring at our navels and arguing over whether a cloned embryo is still an embryo.
The biggest fact they will never tell you is that there is a viable alternative to cloning for patient-specific stem cells. Induced pluripotent stem cells, or iPS cells have been created from all kinds of adult cells. iPS cells are derived from adult cells that have been reprogrammed back to an embryonic state. iPS cells behave like embryonic stem cells and they are a genetic match to the patient because they came from the patient, not from a clone (that has residual DNA from the woman who donated the egg.) iPS cells mean patient-specific stem cells, no eggs, no embryos created or destroyed, no cloning required.
Even after all of the facts, cloning zealots still push their agenda. The comments on this Minnesota Independent article are both aggravating and discouraging.
The only thing that puts a smirk in my snerk, is that I realize something they don’t. SCNT is the same process used to clone cows. You know the cows that strike fear in the hearts of the masses. The cows whose milk no one wants to drink. I know that the people who push for SCNT in humans are the very same who are afraid to drink milk from a cloned cow. So while they complain about the horrors and health risks of milk and meat from cloned cows, they are clamoring to inject themselves with stem cells from a cloned embryo. Their dead clone to be exact. Go figure. Like most things in the Clone Wars, it makes absolutely no sense.
Why should we care about some piece of legislation in Minnesota? Because cloning is always wrong even if it done for a proposed good. It creates, manipulates and destroys human life. And anyone who believes that the cloning will end in the dish is naive. Cloning for research will lead to cloning for babies. According to some experts it is an inevitability. All SCNT in humans needs to be banned. If Minnesota succeeds where other states and the US Congress has failed, it will be a huge triumph for humanity.
Rebecca writes at Mary Meets Dolly which is, literally, the meeting of the world of genetics and genetic engineering, represented by Dolly, “mother” of modern biotechnology, and the teachings of the Catholic Church on the sanctity of life, represented by Mary, mother of Christ and the Church. Rebecca started www.MaryMeetsDolly.com to help everyday Catholics better understand the science and ethics surrounding modern biotechnology in light of Catholic Church teaching. Check her out.