This week's announcement that U.S. scientists have created stem cells from cloned human embryos is an achievement we shouldn't be proud of, pro-life medical experts say.
The scientists, led by Shoukhrat Mitalipov of the Oregon Health and Science University in Portland, Ore., are not the first to have created cloned human embryos. But they're the first to keep cloned embryos alive long enough to extract stem cells and cause them to multiply in a dish. They say their goal is to create stem cells genetically identical to the person being cloned—ostensibly to be used to treat diseases.
The cloning technique works by implanting a human skin cell into a human egg whose nucleus has been removed. The process doesn't involve sperm, but still creates a human embryo, a genetic twin of the person who donated the skin cell.
After Mitalipov and his colleagues created cloned embryos and allowed them to grow for a few days in their lab, they extracted stem cells, which have the medically valuable ability to transform into other cell types. The cloned embryos were destroyed, and were not used to create a pregnancy. The researchers reported on their experiments online Wednesday in the journal Cell.
David Prentice, a senior fellow at the Family Research Council and a former genetics professor at Indiana University School of Medicine, said Mitalipov's work is a technical advance, but an unnecessary one: "There are easier and better ways to do this, and ways to treat patients efficiently, with your own adult stem cells."
Prentice told me that adult stem cells, which don't require clones or embryo destruction, "are treating over 60,000 people around the world." Another type of cell, induced pluripotent stem cells (iPS cells), are much like embryonic stem cells but don't require the destruction of human life. These other methods of producing stem cells are cheaper and more efficient than cloning, and don't require "creating human beings as experiments."
David Stevens, CEO of the Christian Medical Association, agrees: "Why would we want to turn back the clock by reverting to a technique that stem cell science has already passed by?" he asked Wednesday, responding to the Cell paper.
Even Nature—a publication not opposed to embryonic stem cell research—quoted a regenerative medicine specialist from Serbia, Miodrag Stojkovic, who said, “Honestly, the most surprising thing [about the new research] is that somebody is still doing human [cloning] in the era of iPS cells.”
In spite of the advancements in finding other, ethical stem cell sources, Mitalipov has been experimenting with cloning for years, said Prentice. "He's famous as the one who has been able to make cloned monkey embryos. … He basically took what he learned with monkeys and tweaked it a little bit to get these human clones." Mitalipov has implanted cloned monkey embryos into female monkeys, but so far none of the embryos has resulted in a birth.
The push for human cloning seems to be an attempt to attain fame rather than benefit patients, said Prentice: "Somebody is going to, at some point now, try to put these into a womb to try and gestate and birth a live human clone. Just count on it."