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Human Embryo Cloning Unsettles Bioethicists

They question just-announced results, worry about fallout

TUESDAY, Nov. 27, 2001 (HealthDayNews) -- A Massachusetts company's efforts to clone human embryos may not help the cause of stem cell research in this country, experts say.

The study from Advanced Cell Technology Inc., published Sunday in an obscure online medical journal, doesn't break any new scientific ground and only rekindles national debate on the controversial topic, bioethicists suggest.

"It really isn't a great scientific move forward," says Dr. Michael A. Williams, a faculty member of the Bioethics Institute at Johns Hopkins University. "They didn't even really come close to cloning anything."

Another expert echoes the observation.

"Technically speaking, it's not significant. Politically speaking, it is. There's no new technology, no groundbreaking science. They're just using human materials. They've yet to really have a success," says R. Alta Charo, a professor of law and medical ethics at the University of Wisconsin. "It's just triggered a fresh round of the debate we were actively having in August: How are we going to regard these early forms of human life?"

Other cloning experiments have been much more significant, Charo notes.

"Dolly [the cloned sheep] was groundbreaking [in 1997]. This is incremental. When the first patient is ready to receive graft tissue from his own cloned cells, that'll be the day when people's opinions will crystallize," she says. "Many people have the sense that embryos are somewhat special, and shouldn't be damaged or destroyed in the name of research."

"It's this vaguely unsettling feeling," she explains. "I think every time we find a compelling and sympathetic use for embryos in research, public opinion will shift. Then people [will] begin to clarify what they're willing to sacrifice in the name of that unsettled feeling."

"Unsettled" is exactly what conservative political and religious leaders say they felt following the news that Advanced Cell Technology had used human adult DNA to coax human eggs into becoming early-stage embryos.

Company officials claim they are trying to get the embryos to develop to the point where they produce valuable stem cells, immature "master" cells that can develop into any tissue or organ in the body. In the case of this experiment -- the first to use human DNA and eggs -- the embryos died long before they reached the stage where they would have produced stem cells.

In fact, many scientists say that at the stage in which they died, they shouldn't even be called embryos, but rather a tiny collection of cleaved cells.

Although company officials stress they only plan to use the technology to treat a host of diseases by providing replacement cells for damaged ones, critics say it's a dangerous step toward human cloning. Even President Bush stepped into the fray yesterday, calling the research "morally wrong."

That kind of public frenzy hurts stem cell research, says Glenn McGee, who was chairman of Advanced Cell Technology's bioethics committee before resigning a year ago over a lack of communication between the company and the committee.

"There's universal agreement that it's premature. That's troublesome. I'm in favor of stem cell research. This group is making stem cell research more difficult," McGee says. "This group is claiming more than it's done, at a time when the country is terrified of stem cell research and its implications."

That fear has already led to a federal law that prohibits the use of taxpayer money to clone human beings. And several states, including California, have banned human cloning. Congress considered such a ban last summer, but Senate leaders stressed today they're in no hurry to revisit the issue. Advanced Cell Technology can do as it chooses with cloning because it is a private company.

Despite repeated phone calls and e-mails, company officials couldn't be reached for comment, but they have said in published reports that the company felt pressure to publicize what it was doing because the field was so controversial and competitive.

But McGee says the competitive edge is exactly what the United States is losing when it comes to stem cell research. With no clear national policy in place, respected researchers in the field started leaving the country, he notes. And when Bush limited federal funding for stem cell research this year, most of the research shifted to the private sector.

That shift means there's no oversight or control of research in this field, and financial interests now guide scientific decisions, says Jeffrey Kahn, director of the Center for Bioethics at the University of Minnesota.

"We lost the opportunity to introduce controls that had been lacking for 20 years," Kahn says. "It's an example of why we need policy direction."

McGee adds this latest study is a perfect example of the problem.

"It's now a venture capital phenomenon. It's no longer basic science. It's intellectual property," he says. "Whoever has the money is in charge of the research. Somebody's got to say this is not the way to do this."

Williams concurs that stem cell research that isn't federally funded doesn't receive critical scrutiny.

"Some of the protections and transparencies that you need get lost when there's a limitation of federal funding," he says. "Perhaps nobody really considered that as much as we should have."

What To Do

For more information about cloning, check the International Embryo Transfer Society.

The National Institutes of Health published this report on the future of stem cell research.

Read the Human Cloning Conference Report, which details a scientific meeting at the National Academy of Sciences in August where the safety of human reproductive cloning was debated.

SOURCES: Interviews with R. Alta Charo, J.D., professor of law and medical ethics, University of Wisconsin, Madison, Wisc.; Michael Williams, M.D., faculty, Bioethics Institute, Johns Hopkins University, assistant professor, Departments of Neurology and Neurosurgery, Johns Hopkins School of Medicine, Baltimore; Glenn McGee, Ph.D., assistant professor of bioethics, philosophy and history & sociology of science, Center for Bioethics, University of Pennsylvania, Philadelphia; Jeffrey Kahn, professor, medicine, director, Center for Bioethics, University of Minnesota, Minneapolis; Nov. 26, 2001, e-biomed: The Journal of Regenerative Medicine
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