Cloning Pioneer Confirms: No Need to Use Human Embryos

Many conservatives believe that human life begins at conception, and that destruction of human embryos in scientific research, such as cloning research, is wrong.

Meanwhile, the left often claims that those who object to research using human embryos are standing in the way of scientific progress and saving lives. That claim was presented rather dramatically, for example, when actor Chrisopher Reeves lobbied for embryonic stem cell research in the hopes that it might lead to cures for ailments such as his paralysis resulting from a fall from a horse.

Science, however, marches to its own rhythm. Quietly unnoticed in recent years have been a series of defeats for scientists attempting to clone embryos. Meanwhile, scientists investigating other types of stem cells that do not raise ethical concerns, including adult stem cells, have met with some surprising success.

Now a reputable scientist who pioneered cloning of embryos has said that the future of stem cell research lies in adult stem cells, not human embryonic stem cells.

Professor Ian Wilmut, the scientist who cloned Dolly the sheep in 1996, has concluded that cloning human embryos is not necessary because scientists are having greater success turning adult human cells back into stem cells.:

Prof Wilmut, who works at Edinburgh University, believes a rival method pioneered in Japan has better potential for making human embryonic cells which can be used to grow a patient’s own cells and tissues for a vast range of treatments, from treating strokes to heart attacks and Parkinson’s, and will be less controversial than the Dolly method, known as “nuclear transfer.”

His announcement could mark the beginning of the end for therapeutic cloning, on which tens of millions of pounds have been spent worldwide over the past decade. “I decided a few weeks ago not to pursue nuclear transfer,” Prof Wilmut said.

Most of his motivation is practical but he admits the Japanese approach is also “easier to accept socially.”

His inspiration comes from the research by Prof Shinya Yamanaka at Kyoto University, which suggests a way to create human embryo stem cells without the need for human eggs, which are in extremely short supply, and without the need to create and destroy human cloned embryos, which is bitterly opposed by the pro life movement.

Prof Yamanaka has shown in mice how to turn skin cells into what look like versatile stem cells potentially capable of overcoming the effects of disease.

This pioneering work to revert adult cells to an embryonic state has been reproduced by a team in America and Prof Yamanaka is, according to one British stem cell scientist, thought to have achieved the same feat in human cells.

This work has profound significance because it suggests that after a heart attack, for example, skin cells from a patient might one day be manipulated by adding a cocktail of small molecules to form muscle cells to repair damage to the heart, or brain cells to repair the effects of Parkinson’s. Because they are the patient’s own cells, they would not be rejected.

In theory, these reprogrammed cells could be converted into any of the 200 other type in the body, even the collections of different cell types that make up tissues and, in the very long term, organs too. Prof Wilmut said it was “extremely exciting and astonishing” and that he now plans to do research in this area.

This approach, he says, represents, the future for stem cell research, rather than the nuclear transfer method that his large team used more than a decade ago at the Roslin Institute, near Edinburgh, to create Dolly.

In the case of embryonic stem cell research, there has been almost a knee-jerk reaction from the left to concerns about the morality of destroying human embryos. The more the right is against it, the more the left is for it. The left has pushed hard for state and federal authorization and funding of human embryonic stem cell research.

The next time you hear someone pushing for more embryonic stem cell research, you might want to point out that the leading pioneer in embryonic cloning, Professor Wilmut, believes that the future of stem cell research lies in use of adult stem cells, not embryonic cells.

In addition, look at the results. While human embryonic stem cell research is languishing, we’ve already seen amazing developments involving use of non-embryonic stem cells. For example, scientists may soon be able to grow new heart valves for babies using cells normally shed by fetuses into the amniotic flud. Scientists are learning how to grow new organs inside the human body. Other scientists are learning how to turn fat into smooth muscle cells. In June of this year, researchers at Whitehead Institute in Massachusetts modified a skin cell so that it behaved like an embryonic stem cell, making use of human embryos unnecessary.

It’s nice when science and ethics both point in the same direction. That doesn’t always happen. There are times when scientific progress and ethics seem to be in conflict. At those times, we still need to have the courage to ask not only “What is possible?” but also “What is right?”

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