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The Age of Therapeutic Cloning

Ronald Bailey at TechCentralStation summarizes the huge breakthrough in Korea:

Siegel and Perry are hailing the announcement today in Science by Korean researchers that they have created eleven cloned human embryonic stem cell lines that are matched to eleven individual patients. This achievement comes only 14 months after the same team of Korean researchers led by Woo Suk Hwang created the first cloned human embryo.

The researchers used somatic cell nuclear transfer (SCNT) to create these cloned human embryonic stem cell lines. They began with 185 eggs donated by 18 women who produced about 10 eggs per induced superovulation cycle. The researchers removed the nuclei from each egg and inserted skin cell nuclei from each patient into the enucleated eggs. From these 185 eggs, 129 successfully fused with the skin cell nuclei and 31 developed into blastocysts. Eleven different patient matched human embryonic stem cell lines were successfully derived from the 31 blastocysts. The stem cell lines were derived for both males and females and from patients suffering from juvenile diabetes, congenital immunodeficiency disease and spinal cord injuries.

One might wonder why these breakthroughs always seem to come from Korea? Korea has had the lead in stem cell and therapeutic cloning research for some time now. Apparently there is no debate there equivalent to the ongoing ethical struggle that the US is having with this issue. Europe is in much the same boat as the US, with strong government opposition to therapeutic cloning being the norm. In the US, the source of the opposition is primarily religious in nature; in Europe the opposition is more green/Luddite.

Glenn Reynolds has an interesting observation on the potential political fallout, which may apply to leaders in Europe as well as to both political parties in the US (although Glenn mentions the Republicans by name):

The bind for the Republicans is that if stem cell research creates promising treatments or cures, they'll look like they held them back. And if it doesn't do so, they'll be blamed for preventing it.

Reason from Fight Aging! takes a somewhat more pointed approach:

Some of the most promising research into cures for age-related conditions has been held back and underfunded for years in the US. But regular readers know this already; much of the recent news regarding stem cell research has been nothing but politics. It is a great pity that we live in a society that places so little value on individual responsibility, freedom and choice, especially in those areas of human endeavor where the most good could be accomplished. Centralization and socialization of medicine are terrible things; why do we allow the uninformed and unskilled to squander resources and hold life and death decisions over our heads?

The bottom line: politicized medical research is slower, less effective, less efficient medical research. The slower it goes, the more likely you are to suffer and die from an age-related condition that might otherwise have been cured. The slower it goes, the less likely we are to make serious progress towards a cure for the aging process itself. Politicians can do nothing but destroy and delay; they should leave well alone - let those who are willing to work put their talents, unhindered, towards creating longer, healthier lives for all.

If therapeutic cloning is able to deliver on even a small portion of its promised benefits, it's difficult for me to believe that it won't become available somewehere (most likely Korea) in the very near future. And I suspect it will eventually be available in Europe and the US as well.

An important confrontation (it's much more than a debate) lies ahead.


South Korea Does It Again

We learned yesterday that South Korea has taken another giant leap forward in the field of therapeutic cloning. They have produced 11 new stem cell lines, which is a wonderful thing in itself, but these stem cell lines are exact genetic matches for patients who need them.

If you need stem cell therapy - this, currently, is the only way to get exact genetically matching omni-potent stem cells. THE only way. And you'd have to go to South Korea for the treatment.

The South Korean lab that keeps shocking the world with these breakthroughs is manned by brilliant, hard-working scientists. These guys are said to work every day of the year. No breaks...ever. That's an impressive commitment, but the man-hours that these few scientists can devote to this field - even working every day - is nothing compared to the man-hours the United States could throw at these same problems. If, that is, we made it a priority.

The fact that therapeutic cloning is not a priority in this country can be blamed in large measure on The President's Council of Bioethics. Not happy that his influence doesn't extend as far as South Korea, the Council Chair Leon Kass had this to say:

Whatever its technical merit, this research is morally troubling: it creates human embryos solely for research, makes it much easier to produce cloned babies, and exploits women as egg donors not for their benefit.

Kass' first point: that this development "creates human embryos solely for research" is actually his best argument. Kass' position that embryos should not be used in research is, no doubt, a product of the belief that human life begins at conception.

If you really believe that the handful of undifferentiated cells in the petri dish is a human, then there is no justification for sacrificing one human to help another human. This position becomes hard to swallow if the human in need is standing next to you begging you to help him, but if you accept that conception marks the arrival of a human, complete in rights if not in form, where none existed the moment before, then the position is at least, logical.

Those who have argued that life begins at conception often point to the fact that conception is the first appearance of the DNA blueprint that will be used to make an individual human. In fact conception does produce DNA that is distinct from the parents, but it is not necessarily the DNA that will go on to make an individual human.

The key battleground is where society says that human life begins.

Clearly, both the sperm and egg are [living human cells] and they have the potential of being part of a new human, but few would offer legal protection to gametes. The crude and hilarious "Every Sperm is Sacred" song is effective satire because almost nobody would adopt that thinking...

Before differentiation a fertilized egg might fail to develop (as occurs when the fertilized egg is unsuccessful in attaching to the uterine wall - this happens about half of the time). Or the fertilized egg might become a single human. It could become two humans in the case of identical twins (natural clones). A fertilized egg might even become part of a human in the rare case of a chimera – where two fertilized eggs develop together into a single embryo.

If a fertilized egg has the potential in nature of being no human, part of a human, one human, or two humans, the destiny of a fertilized egg is objectively undetermined – much like the undetermined nature of the gametes that formed it.

After differentiation, an embryo has crossed an objective medical threshold. The individual that the embryo will develop into is now determined. The same thing cannot be said of the moment of conception.

Differentiation occurs very early in a pregnancy - at about ten days. This is a much more conservative definition of the beginning of human life than abortion-rights advocates would be willing to accept.

A person who accepts differentiation as the beginning of human life can be pro-life (anti-abortion) without the practical inconsistency of being against the research that could save countless other lives. This is not mere situational ethics. This is the sort of critical reexamination of ethics that new technology forces upon us. It should be of no consequence that Kass and company are unhappy with the arrival of this technology. The technology is here and we are going to have to deal with it.

Kass' second point, that this technology "makes it much easier to produce cloned babies," is just silly. The automobile made drive-by shootings possible too. The fact that something bad might be done with a technology is an insufficient reason to ban the technology. Particularly where, as here, the potential benefits are so great.

"The South Korean government, which paid for the new study, has made it a criminal offense to implant a cloned embryo into a woman's uterus," Dr. Hwang [the head of South Korean group] said. "It should be banned throughout the world," he added.

I'd have no problem with that. One of me is plenty. Reproductive cloning would presently be unsafe for the child. The risk of birth defects is much too high. Even if that problem were solved, there is the question of why a person would want a clone - organ harvesting perhaps?

Kass' third point, that this technology "exploits women as egg donors not for their benefit" is also without merit. This argument makes no sense, of course, in those cases where the egg donor is also the beneficiary of the stem cell line. But the argument is worthless in any case.

I'm sure Kass would like to make an analogy between egg donation and prostitution, but you might as well say the same thing of blood donation. If Kass' problem with egg donation is the pain of the procedure, bone marrow donation is very painful as well. Yet good people donate bone marrow to complete strangers all the time.

Technology will soon render any concern with egg donation moot anyway. Artificial eggs could soon be used in this procedure.

Obviously, the ethical issue involved here could not be more important – the respect for human life. But our respect for human life shouldn't end at birth. Our society has a duty to the sick and suffering to do all it can for them as long as doing so will not sacrifice human dignity.

South Korea's accomplishment will enhance human dignity.

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