Although I haven't discussed it much here yet, or anything of a personal nature really, in the "real world" I work for a large medical device company. My specific group works on a variety of emerging therapy techniques, mostly of the cellular and molecular nature, which is a bit of a departure from the rest of the company. In fact, I met a few guys from the other side of the company just yesterday, and when it was explained to them what our group does, they said something along the lines of, "I didn't even know [we] did anything like that." I have the opportunity, in this unique position in the company, to be exposed to a lot of outside agencies, especially academic ones, where a lot of this research is occurring, as it is relatively in it's infancy (or at least at the toddler level). And we have a number of collaborators at the large, local, research university. This kind of research also puts me directly on the edge of a number of the hot-button ethical issues in the field right now, such as therapeutic cloning, nuclear transfer, and embryonic stem cell therapies.
So, while I was down there yesterday, I had the opportunity to hear a talk by Dr. Ian Wilmut
, the creator of Dolly
, the sheep that was cloned in England awile back, and pioneer of nuclear transfer (Dr. Wilmut, not the sheep). For the unintiated, nuclear transfer
would probably be considered an "alternative stem cell therapy", because the embryo is not actually destroyed. At least, potentially. More on that in a second. Dr. Wilmut had some very cool video of the procedure, but basically what happens is that the nucleus of a donated
embryo is removed or destroyed with a small pipette, and is then replaced by the nucleus of a donor cell. This donor cell could be from a sheep (in the case of Dolly, her "mother"), a patient with leukemia (where stem cells could eventually be derived from the cloned embryo to replace their bone marrow), a wooly mammoth fossil (I believe this is being done right now), etc. The nucleus takes awhile to reset or reprogram, and adapt to it's new conditions, and then begins to develop normally. Most of the time. In the case of Dr. Wilmut's group, he showed data that cloning is "successful" (the organism develops to term and is initially healthy) more often if the donor nucleus is from a younger donor (fetal>neonatal>newborn, etc...). And still, a 10% success rate is about all they can achieve, although a recent group in Korea has done somewhat better.
There are all kinds of ethical issues wrapped up in this kind of procedure. Source of the embryos is the first. Dr. Wilmut mentioned several times during his talk that in all upcoming research that they are planning, all the embryos will be donated, without compensation, from willing women. The didn't want to use the embryos that come as leftovers from in-vitro fertilization (IVF) that are commonly used in embryonic stem cell derivation, because they didn't want the women/families to not get pregnant and then have to consider that they had given up an embryo that they could have used. He had several other examples, as well, that were along the lines of "not wanting to have the woman think about such and such." Sounds like a responsible researcher, right?
Another troublesome issue is the incidence of abnormalities. There's no doubt that they are quite high, even under the best of conditions. Dolly had arthritis and died early, although there is no direct evidence that these were caused by the cloning procedure per se. But there have been plenty of studies showing that abnormalities are high (particularly respiratory problems, apparently) in cloned animals, and there are significant differences in the requirements for successful cloning across species. Cloning of rhesus monkeys, or any primate for that matter, have yet to be successful. It's a young technique, so there are bound to be some growing pains as methods are developed, but I think it's safe to say that no one involved in this kind of research thinks that human cloning is anywhere near being feasible...let alone safe. No doubt also that it could be...someday.
This last point prompted someone in the audience to ask what is to prevent someone (attention wacko religious cults!!) from taking the "Faustian deal" and clone a human being when the technology is available, no matter what the consequences. Dr. Wilmut's response was one I've heard before, and is at once simple and elegant.
Make a law against it.
Sounds simple right? That's because it is
. And the U.S. is one of only a few countries not to have a specific law against it. Not only that, our fine leaders have prevented a U.N. measure from coming up to vote on making it a world-wide crime against humanity to clone a human being.
Let's think for a second about the debate that went on (national
debate) during the Terry Schiavo case about the end of life. This is a subject that evoked a lot of passion from a lot of people. But that passion was more about the way we determine when life has ended, or when it is okay TO end life. But the rules about when life DOES end are reasonably set. Why can't we have this discussion about the start of life in this country? I should ask...why can't we have a REASONABLE discussion about this? My personal opinion is that this debate is a lot more confusing to the average person. The details are trickier. It seems too "science-y" for many, and the easy answers that many religious and political leaders are giving are convenient to fall back on, rather than try and learn about the issue. I hope in the coming weeks to provide more information to clarify this issue. And I hope that people can make their own decisions about when a ball of cells is no longer a ball of cells, but a little ball of life with associated inalienable rights.