The Washington Post headline is misleading: “Scientists Report Possibly Crucial Advance in Human Embryonic Stem Cell Research.” In actuality, this is a potential advance in human cloning research.(Scientists have long known how to create ES cell lines from destroyed embryos.)
The story, byline Rob Stein, begins vaguely about what was actually done. From the story:
Scientists reported Wednesday that for the first time they used cloning techniques to coax human eggs to generate embryonic stem cells containing the genes of specific patients.
And there’s a junk biology bias penalty flag thrown on the field! If the researchers had obtained stem cells from eggs, it would be process known as parthenogenesis, that is, stimulating the egg to divide. But that isn’t what this was. It was a form of human cloning via a procedure similar—but different as we shall see below—to somatic cell nuclear transfer. SCNT, the process that created Dolly, makes an embryo asexually. That means the stem cells were obtained from embryos, not eggs.
Back to the story, the reporter then changes his story. The cells didn’t come from eggs, but “mutant” embryos.
At the same time, the researchers made the cells by producing and then destroying mutant embryos, whose moral status immediately became a matter of sharp debate.
How were they “mutant?” When the scientists tried to create embryos via standard SCNT, they failed. So rather than taking the nucleus out of the egg before inserting the somatic cell nucleus—as is usually done in SCNT cloning—they left it in. That meant the resulting embryo was “triploid,” that is it had 23 extra (69 rather than 46) chromosomes. That makes these clearly useless in treatments. And as for use in drug or other patient specific research, we already have induced pluripotent stem cells that have the normal set of chromosomes. So, this is more a novel proof of theory, it seems to me, than an actual breakthrough.
So, that means the embryo could never have become a baby, right? Nope. Triploid babies are occasionally born (although they usually miscarry). It is a terminal condition, but they can live for weeks, or even months, after birth. From a scientific paper published in 2005:
Triploidy is estimated to occur in 3% of recognized human conceptuses. Most triploids are aborted spontaneously between 7 and 17 weeks of gestation, while those who proceed to live birth die at an early postnatal stage (Hasegawa et al., 1999). Twenty different clinical features have been described in 69,XXX triploid infants (Doshi et al., 1983). According to the literature, triploid cases with a survival of more than 60 days are very rare (Sherard et al., 1986). In this report we present a case of a 69,XXX triploid infant who survived for 164 days. This is the longest survival reported for this condition to date in Greece. A review of the literature uncovered six cases of a 69,XXX triploid infant who survived more than 45 days.
These children are not “mutants.” They are fully equal human beings born with a terminal disability.
So, this is what I think: Human cloning is intrinsically unethical because it creates human beings (or, if you prefer, human organisms) as a method of manufacture. This process is also, because it creates a human life for the purpose of destroying it in research.
And then there is another problem: These scientists paid women for their eggs to allow their research:
The research was possible because for the first time scientists paid women for their eggs for human embryonic stem cell research, stirring worries about women being exploited and putting their health at risk. At the same time, the researchers made the cells by producing and then destroying mutant embryos, whose moral status immediately became a matter of sharp debate.
Yes, as the award winning documentary, Eggsploitation, (produced by the CBC, for which I am a paid consultant) clearly demonstrates, egg extraction can be very dangerous to women’s health—potentially including death. Egg selling is now allowed in New York, which is how these researchers obtained the gametes. It should be outlawed, and indeed, is generally deemed unethical for use in biotechnological research. Even the California Institute for Regenerative Medicine doesn’t permit it (although watch for a push to allow that to change).
So, this seems the bottom line:
- Scientists still have not succeeded in creating human embryos via usual SCNT processes, at least not that were maintained to the blastocyst stage of embryonic development.
- The 69 chromosome stem cells derived from the cloning procedure are of limited value in and of themselves, although Stein reports that the scientists said the advance could be used to “decipher how eggs reprogram genes.”
- IPSCs are already producing patient specific, tailor made pluripotent stem cells for use in drug testing and disease research, which we were once told would require human cloning to do
Here’s the macro bottom line: Even if IPSCs eventually provide every benefit supposedly to be obtained from human cloning for experimentation (therapeutic cloning), many scientists would shrug and keep on cloning anyway. That’s because the ultimate agenda goes far beyond stem cell research and into Brave New World technologies that require cloning, e.g., genetic engineering, fetal farming and experimentation, and eventually cloning to produce babies. Indeed, some bioethicists already support allowing cloning and gestating to birth.