As the Bush administration pushes for a total ban on cloning research, only one U.S. lab — Advanced Cell Technology of Worcester, Mass. — is openly pursuing such work. MSNBC.com was given a rare glimpse of ACT’s labs, where we viewed firsthand the work that many scientists say could lead to cures for a wide range of currently incurable diseases.
As we watched the researchers prepare cells for cloning, ACT’s Dr. Robert Lanza predicted that work like his will revolutionize the field of medicine, providing novel treatments for Alzheimer’s, diabetes, heart disease and Parkinson’s.
A tiny cluster of cells, smaller than the head of a pin, holds the key to curing fatal diseases, even to growing spare body parts, says Lanza, director of medical research at the labs.
Lanza believes that the reason some people oppose such work is because they don’t understand the basic science of cloning.
The best way to cut through the confusion, Lanza argues, is to stop using one term — human cloning — to describe two procedures with fundamentally different outcomes.
Cures vs. babies
It’s true that the procedures — one known as therapeutic cloning, the other as reproductive cloning — have the same genesis: a single egg from which the nucleus has been removed. DNA from another cell — such as a skin cell — is slipped into the gutted egg, and chemicals or an electrical current coax it into dividing.
That’s where the similarities end. Once it divides into a ball of approximately 100 cells, it could be implanted into a woman’s womb and brought to term, just like a normal fetus. That’s reproductive human cloning, and virtually all mainstream scientists oppose this approach.
By contrast, in therapeutic cloning, once a very early embryo is formed, stem cells — building blocks that can be manipulated into becoming other cell types — are extracted for medical research. The embryo is then destroyed — and never implanted in a woman’s uterus to conceive a baby.
The potential for curing human disease with these precious cells “is enormous,” says Lanza. “To cut off this research is inconceivable.”
Tuesday’s decision from the American Bar Association to endorse cloning for cures is a powerful signal from the legal community supporting Lanza’s position, says Robyn Shapiro. She authored the resolution urging the U.S. government not to ban therapeutic cloning or impose fines or jail time on scientists who pursue the work.
The U.S. House of Representatives has already passed legislation banning therapeutic cloning and a similar bill is stalled in the Senate. President Bush has also spoken out in favor of a permanent ban on all types of cloning.
Shapiro says her hope is that the ABA legislation will propel a significant enough lobbying force to doom any ban when the issue again comes up in the Senate.
Should therapeutic cloning be banned, “Our best researchers will go to England where it is allowed, promising U.S. research will come to a halt or worst of all, researchers will go underground where there will be no regulation of any kind,” says Shapiro, head of bioethics at the Medical College of Wisconsin in Milwaukee.
Education is key
Randy Wicker, head of the New York City-based Human Cloning Foundation, predicts such educational and lobbying efforts can make a difference. “When the House voted to ban therapeutic cloning, they were so misinformed,” he says. “There is now enough education about the promise of stem cell research that [the Senate] would never pass a ban.”
Since reports of Dolly the cloned sheep reverberated around the world in 1997, researchers worldwide have been trying — some with success, some not — to duplicate the work in mammals ranging from mice to monkeys. But Lanza’s lab’s announcement of the creation of a cloned human embryo with six cells last December marked a new milestone for human therapeutic cloning, propelling ACT into the spotlight.
Despite its promise, therapeutic cloning continues to draw strident opposition from many pro-lifers. They say that the early embryo formed during therapeutic cloning is a human life; destroying it to extract stem cells, therefore, is taking a life.
But some conservatives like Sen. Orrin Hatch disagree and have come out in favor of therapeutic cloning.
“At the core of my support for [therapeutic cloning] is my belief that human life begins in a mother’s nurturing womb,” Hatch says. ”[Therapeutic cloning] is pro-life and pro-family; it enhances, not diminishes, human life.”
Actor Christopher Reeve, a leading spokesperson for stem cell research, says that turning a discussion about a potentially life-saving technique into a debate about abortion is unconscionable. “We’re fighting the imagery of destroying an embryo instead of carrying on a conversation about the benefits of therapeutic cloning,” Reeve told MSNBC.com.
“If you said, ‘Let’s take cells and make replacement tissue to cure disease,’ you would be talking about same thing but would not provoke the same debate, the same outcries,” Reeve says.
Others protest that therapeutic cloning is opening the door for reproductive cloning; after all, who is going to stop a scientist from taking a legally created early embryo and implanting it in a woman’s womb?
Mainstream scientists argue this is a moot point: No law or moral outcry is going to stop scientists who believe human cloning is right or who seek to create a cloned baby for fame or money.
In fact, a few maverick scientists say they have already implanted cloned embryos in women in undisclosed locations around the world and predict that the first cloned baby will be born within a year.
Dr. Judd Somerville is a practicing physician, confined to a wheelchair, who volunteered his cells for the experiments at Lanza’s facility. A devout Episcopalian, Somerville is painfully aware of the moral controversy surrounding human cloning, of critics’ claims that the early embryo destroyed in therapeutic cloning is a human life.
‘Getting off the ground’
“But it became quickly apparent that I could not come up with any cons,” says Somerville, explaining that he felt like a pioneer on the frontiers of medicine.
Sommerville likes to compare his contribution to the field of science to those of “two brothers, 100 years ago, who got up one foggy morning, went up 150 feet into the air in a new contraption and crashed.
“Everyone said at the time, ‘Who would ever use that contraption?’” he says. “But you have to get off the ground, take baby steps. Therapeutic cloning and stem cells will probably go down as the greatest discovery of the 21st century.”
The ultimate goal, Lanza explains, is to develop genetically compatible replacement cells for patients with a range of illnesses.
“If we don’t allow therapeutic cloning,” Lanza says, “some 3,000 Americans will continue to die each day of diseases that could one day be treated using stem cells derived from cloning.”