Opponents of human cloning and federal funding of embryonic-stem-cell research are being fast marginalized by a myth that cloning will be an immediate panacea to the ravages of degenerative disease and disabling injury. The intensity of belief in science as savior, combined with a desperate desire that it be so, has become so fervent that faith in this research has come to resemble a secular religion. And now, supporters of cloning for biomedical research are using the death of Ronald Reagan from complications of Alzheimer’s disease as a bellows to blow the political winds in their favor.
Take New York Times political columnist William Safire as just one example. This week, in a column he named “ Reagan’s Next Victory,” Safire urged President Bush to open the federal-funding spigots to embryonic-stem-cell research and, more ominously, to legalize research into human cloning as a medical treatment (while still outlawing the creation of cloned children). In doing so, he summarily dismissed the prospect for cures being derived from adult-stem-cell and related research–as cloning proponents almost always do–writing: “Some argue that we should see if adult stem cells may someday do the regenerative trick. But ’someday’ doesn’t help today’s victims.”
Safire has it completely backwards. Cloning is in its embryonic stage. Even if it could be used as an efficacious treatment (though that is a gargantuan “if”), its success would be a decade or more away. But adult-stem-cell and related tissue therapies are already treating human maladies. Indeed, ignored by Safire and other advocates, the science is moving forward at an exhilarating pace both here and abroad in animal and human studies.
Consider the hopeful news: Early human trials have commenced for conditions such as heart damage, multiple sclerosis, corneal injury, spinal injury, and Parkinson’s disease, among others, generally with very encouraging results. For example, in Lisbon, Portugal, Dr. Carlos Lima has helped restore some muscle and bladder control in paralyzed human patients using their own olfactory tissues. At least one patient regained the ability to stand with the aid of braces. Meanwhile, mice at the end stage of juvenile diabetes were cured using human spleen cells, a feat that no embryonic-stem-cell experiment has come close to matching. And it was just announced that bone-marrow stem cells have successfully regenerated liver tissue. The list goes on and on. Thus, if our goal is to create effective treatments for degenerative conditions in the quickest possible time, pursuing non-embryonic approaches would seem to be our best bet.
Therapeutic cloning and embryonic-stem-cell research also face daunting challenges that may keep them from ever becoming a regular part of medicine’s armamentarium. These include:
Tissue Rejection: According to an article in the May 2004 Scientific American, a major hurdle to the use of embryonic stem cells in regenerative medical treatments taken from leftover in-vitro-fertilization (IVF) treatments is the likelihood that the body would reject them as it would a transplanted organ. One suggested way out of this dilemma is tissue typing, but according to the article, that could require “hundreds of thousands of ES [embryonic stem] cell lines…to establish a bank of cells with immune matches for most potential patients. Creating that many lines would require millions of discarded embryos from IVF clinics.” If true, this would doom embryonic stem cells as a viable medical treatment.
The Need for Tens of Millions of Human Eggs: The authors’ way out of the rejection conundrum is therapeutic cloning, because the embryonic stem cells derived from cloned embryos of each patient would likely not be rejected. But therapeutic cloning would be even more wildly impractical than making hundreds of thousands of embryonic-stem-cell lines. Human cloning, also known as somatic-cell nuclear transfer (SCNT), requires an egg for each try. The National Academy of Sciences (NAS) claims there are more than 100 million Americans who could benefit from regenerative medicine. A NAS report last year also suggested that based on mouse studies, it could take about 100 human eggs per patient just to derive one cloned embryonic-stem-cell line for use in regenerative therapy. (South Korean scientists recently announced that they managed to create one human cloned embryonic-stem-cell line using 242 eggs.) If true, there is no prospect of bringing therapeutic cloning to your local clinic, because we will almost surely never be able to accumulate the billions of human eggs that widespread therapeutic cloning would require. (One suggested way out of this dilemma would be to use animal eggs, but that would introduce animal mitochondrial DNA into human patients, with unknown consequences.)
The Probable Expense: Even if developed, such treatments would be prohibitively expensive. Human eggs used in infertility treatments are sold by young women of childbearing age today for about $1000 to $2000 apiece. If it would take 100 eggs per therapeutic-cloning treatment, that is about $200,000 per treatment, just for the eggs used by one patient! And this price doesn’t take into account the wild inflation in egg prices that therapeutic cloning would cause, owing to the sharp spike in demand. Thus, even if the biotechnology could be developed, it would either be available only to the super rich or so costly that it would have to be stringently rationed.
Tumors: In animal studies, embryonic stem cells cause tumors, making them unsafe for use in human patients at this time. Using cloned embryos to derive stem cells would not solve this difficulty.
Safire’s desire to legalize human cloning for use in research while barring the technology’s use in reproduction is also dangerously naïve. Human cloning is a dual-use technology, which means that going in for an inch is going in for a mile. The same procedure used to create a cloned human embryo for research could also be used to bring about the birth of the first cloned baby. Indeed, attempts are already underway to make this dreaded prospect a reality. Giving such research the imprimatur of U.S. law would only legitimize cloning, open the spigots of private and taxpayer funding for the research, and thus hasten the day when a rogue scientist will take the knowledge derived from the research to accomplish what Safire called “an abyss of unrestricted human cloning.”
The problems with ESCR and therapeutic cloning are fundamental and complex. Some may be intractable. In contrast, adult therapies are making tremendous strides. But apparently, these facts don’t count for much in a society that increasingly looks to science as a religion and biotechnologists as its new high priests. In such a milieu, empirical analysis is trumped by the hyped promise of cures every time.