There is nothing like an advance in human cloning to grab everyone's attention. So Wednesday’s news that scientists at the New York Stem Cell Foundation have successfully cloned a human embryo and produced apparently viable stem cells has the whole world watching.
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Should we be concerned that the clones are coming to your town -- and soon? Hardly. Is the new research of keen interest if you have a damaged spinal column, Parkinson’s disease, juvenile diabetes or a seriously damaged heart? Absolutely. The technique involved should quiet the opponents of human embryonic stem cell research because, while cloning is involved, the creation of viable human embryos is not.
Scientists have been trying to clone human embryos from the cells of the human body ever since Dolly the sheep was announced in 1997. The cloning efforts are not to make people, but to find a way to create personalized health repair kits. If you could make an embryo using DNA extracted from one of the cells in your skin, liver or muscle, then stem cells could be made that are biologically identical to your other cells. This would allow doctors potentially to fix a wide variety of diseases in your body without having the repair cells attacked as foreign invaders.
The problem with this idea -- a fix-it kit for each of us from the DNA of our own cells -- is that cloning has not worked. At all.
Despite a lot of claims by con artists, frauds and nuts, no one in over 15 years has been able to clone a human embryo, much less make a cloned human being. Even though a slew of magazine and Internet articles have long hinted that human cloning is just around the corner, the corner has proven to be more like a chain of mountains.
The New York research shows there is a way to get cloning to work -- sort of. The scientists involved found that if they moved DNA from an adult cell and stuck it into a donated human egg without removing the egg’s DNA, then an embryo would start to grow. In traditional cloning, the DNA is pulled out of the egg and replaced by the DNA transferred from skin, liver or other body cell. While useful for making sheep and horses and goats -- for people, not so much. The new technique creates a genetic overflow in the cloned egg, but it was partly successful.
The good news is, the newly cloned eggs in this research have three sets of genes and die after a couple of days. That means no frothing murderous human clones are ever coming to get you. And making doomed, misprogrammed embryo-like eggs should put an end to the fear-mongering used to attack funding for research on cloning to create embryonic stem cells. They are not people when created and cannot become people later.
Even better news: You can get stem cells out of the gene-heavy cloned eggs that do seem to work like embryonic stem cells. That means possible repair kit cells could be made from your own cells someday and used to treat your particular diseases.
It is still exceedingly early days to see if this approach to cloning really can be used to make useful 'embryonic' stem cells. But, it is not too early to understand that the work using this type of cloning ought to be funded and supported. The human ‘embryos’ made by this form of gene transfer are not people.
No one wants to try and turn them into people and even if they did they could not do so. They are human embryos only if you stretch the term embryo to its very limit.
So there is a potential way to make embryonic stem cells using cloning, but nothing ethically to worry about. This is cloning as it ought to be -- making cells, not people.
Arthur Caplan, Ph.D., is director of the Center for Bioethics at the University of Pennsylvania.
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