Ian Wilmut, co-creator of Dolly the cloned sheep, wants your tax dollars to pay Big Biotech and their business partners in elite university life-science departments to conduct research into human cloning. Wilmut dropped this little bon mot to the London Telegraph while on his way to the United Nations to lobby against a pending international protocol that would outlaw all human-somatic-cell nuclear transfer (SCNT) cloning. He took the opportunity of being interviewed to grouse that America’s refusal to publicly fund research into human cloning is stifling science and slowing the development of new medical cures.
Wilmut’s complaint is part of an intense public-relations campaign intended to pressure federal and state governments to publicly fund human cloning. Yet only three years ago, during the great stem-cell debate of 2001, biotech advocates assured a wary nation that they only wanted taxpayers to pay for embryonic-stem-cell research (ESCR) that would be strictly limited to using embryos leftover from in-vitro-fertilization treatments. After a protracted political struggle, President Bush partially accommodated the request by allowing federal funding on embryonic stem-cell lines already in existence as of August 9, 2001.
But now, we are being told that ESCR alone won’t lead to treatments for degenerative diseases and disabilities such as Parkinson’s, spinal-cord injury, Lou Gehrig’s disease, juvenile diabetes, and the like. It seems that our bodies might reject tissues developed from natural embryos. Indeed, according to Robert Lanza, medical director of Advanced Cell Technology, writing in the May 24 Scientific American, the rejection issue is so huge that biotechnologists would require “millions of discarded embryos from IVF clinics” to create stem-cell lines with sufficient genetic variations to mitigate the problem through tissue matching.
Cloning proponents like Lanza claim that the solution to the tissue-rejection conundrum is to make a cloned embryo of each patient and extract the clone’s stem cells for use in treatment, a process often called “therapeutic cloning.” In theory, since the patient and the clone’s DNA would be virtually identical, injected embryonic tissues would not be rejected and the patient would be spared from a lifetime of taking immune suppressant drugs.
If Lanza is right and cloning in fact leads to cures for hundreds of millions of people with degenerative conditions worldwide, there would seem to be no limit to the financial profits to be made in this area. Yes, investing in such research would be risky since human cloning is far from perfected. But venture capitalists have been taking substantial risks on biotechnological research for years now: According to the May 20 Wall Street Journal, investors have already poured $100 billion into the biotechnology industry even though $40 billion has been lost. Hence, even if therapeutic cloning is a long shot, cloning companies should still have to beat investors away with a stick.
But the contrary is true. According to several recent news articles, biotech companies hoping to strike it rich via human cloning are withering on the financial vine. It isn’t that private capitalists necessarily have moral qualms about human cloning, though they should. More likely, their due diligence has convinced them that therapeutic cloning would be so wildly impractical and expensive to administer that investing money into developing the technology makes about as much financial sense as putting cash through a paper shredder.
These problems are many and varied, and most seem intractable. They include:
The human-egg dearth: Each attempt at somatic-cell nuclear transfer cloning requires one human egg. (In theory, animal eggs might also be used, but that would create human/animal combinations that in addition to being morally objectionable could also increase the likelihood of rejection.) The National Academy of Sciences has estimated that there are at least 100 million people in America alone that could benefit from stem-cell therapies. Even if it only took one egg per patient, that would still be 100 million eggs. But it is utterly unrealistic to think that cloning will ever become that efficient. Indeed, an article published last year by the NAS (written by Peter Mombaerts of Rockefeller University) revealed that it would probably take about 100 human eggs per patient to make just one viable cloned embryonic-stem-cell line for use in “therapeutic cloning.” If true, this means we would need a mind-boggling 10 billion eggs just to treat 100 million Americans–never mind the hundreds of millions of patients who would clamor for such care in the rest of the world. These staggering numbers almost certainly doom therapeutic cloning from ever entering medicine’s armamentarium.
The unaffordable expense: The pro-cloning Mombaerts had more bad news for therapeutic-cloning proponents. At present, young women sell their eggs for use in fertility treatments for $1000 to $2000 each. Given this price, he concluded that the cost of obtaining one cloned human-embryonic-stem-cell line–not including the expenses associated with doctors, hospitals, laboratories, etc.–would run in the neighborhood of $200,000 just for the eggs, “a prohibitively high sum” that he predicted “will impede the widespread application of this technology in its present form.” Even this cost-prohibitive estimate is wildly understated because it doesn’t take into account the exponential increase in demand for eggs that therapeutic cloning would cause. Thus, rather than filling investors’ coffers, therapeutic cloning would be far more likely to bust the bank.
The problem of tumors: Embryonic stem cells often cause tumors in animal studies, making their use in humans highly problematic. Therapeutic cloning would do nothing to solve this significant safety problem.
The advances in adult-stem-cell research: Meanwhile, research into harnessing non-embryonic sources of stem cells for use in medical therapies is advancing at an astounding pace, both in animal studies and early human trials. Human patients with neurological conditions, heart disease, and other illnesses such as cycle-cell anemia, have received substantial benefit in early human trials. Late stage juvenile diabetes in mice has been cured completely using human spleen cells. On June 1, Johns Hopkins Kimmel Cancer Center announced that bone-marrow stem cells helped rebuild damaged livers in mice. Recently, the European Journal of Neuroscience reported that dental pulp provides great support for nerve cells lost to Parkinson’s. In Lisbon, Portugal, Dr. Carlos Lima has helped restore some muscular and bladder control to paralyzed patients using olfactory nerve cells. If such breakthroughs continue at the current pace–and if no significant safety issues develop to stand in the way–within the decade embryonic sources for use in stem-cell therapy might become superfluous.
Venture capitalists have no duty to risk their money on technology that almost surely will never return a profit. Just because this starves Big Biotech of funds to pay for human cloning doesn’t mean that society is obliged to fill the gap. Indeed, engaging in such blatant corporate welfare could actually delay viable medical therapies from reaching the medical marketplace, particularly if we divert funds that would otherwise have gone to adult-stem-cell research, which venture capitalists are investing in and which is already bringing such great hope to human patients.