Geoff Lomax is CIRM’s Senior Officer to the Standards Working Group
Yesterday the news broke that scientists led by Shoukhrat Mitalipov at Oregon Health and Science University derived human embryonic stem cells through a process called nuclear transfer (more about that here). The report is an important step forward for the development of stem cell-based therapies because it will allow the comparison of different methods for obtaining embryonic-like stem cells, including human embryonic stem cells (hESCs), induced pluripotent stem cells (iPSCs), and now hESCs derived by nuclear transfer (SCNT).
This development is particularly important at time when hESC- and iPSC-based treatments are entering clinical trials. In these early clinical stages, it is critical to evaluate different approaches to understand the best pathway to safe and effective therapies. As George Daley of Harvard University says in a story in The Scientist:
“We are now left to analyze the detailed molecular nature of SCNT-ES cells to determine how closely they resemble embryo-derived ES cells and whether they have any advantages over iPS cells.”
One might think advocates for iPS cell-based therapies would be particularly enthusiastic about the Mitalipov report because it enables comparison of different reprogramming methods. In the world of therapy development, more information is always the better.
However, there are groups of people who take it as dogma that if SCNT succeeds for generating new stem cell lines, reproductive cloning must surely follow. Bernard Siegel, executive director of the Genetics Policy Institute in Palm Beach, Florida is quoted in a story in Nature saying that the response has been “cloning hysteria.”
For instance, one headline from The Business Journals read, “Family Research Council Condemns Human Cloning in Oregon.” Another on the Center for Bioethics and Culture Network web page reads “Human Cloning is Here!” In another piece titled Scientists Clone and Kill Human Embryos for Dubious Research, David Prentice, Senior Fellow for Life Sciences at Family Research Council writes:
“It is a grave concern that some scientists are still pursuing human cloning, a technology that will open the door to human engineering and a brave, but highly dangerous, new world.”
Josephine Quintavalle, amplified this hysteria in a story in The Daily Mail, where she questioned the fundamental motivation of the research saying,
“The suspicion has to be that the real interest is not stem cell therapy per se, given that other uncontroversial approaches are already so successful. Let’s hope that the goal is not out and out reproductive cloning.”
This fixation on human cloning persists despite repeated and ongoing efforts to advance socially responsible research under high ethical standards. First, and foremost, the research community supports a ban on human cloning such as the one in California.
Cloning hysteria disparages the accomplishments of scientists who work to ensure responsible application of research. For example, in a press release about the work, Mitalipov emphasized that group does not intend the work to be used for reproductive cloning:
“While nuclear transfer breakthroughs often lead to a public discussion about the ethics of human cloning, this is not our focus, nor do we believe our findings might be used by others to advance the possibility of human reproductive cloning.”
It is unfortunate that a breakthrough designed to enable the development of stem cell therapies from any source is subject to unsubstantiated attacks. It is particularly disturbing to see underlying motivations of scientists distorted despite clear statements to the contrary.
Scientists should be recognized for their contributions and not demonized because of prevailing dogma. Galileo was persecuted because his theory that the earth rotated around the sun challenged Church dogma. Let’s hope Mitalipov’s work doesn’t suffer a similar fate by who claim it will lead to cloning.