Wednesday, June 16, 2004

First UK Human Cloning?

The BBC reports that a research group headed by Dr Miodrag Stojkovic of Newcastle University have requested permission from the Human Fertilisation and Embryology Authority to clone human embryos. This is the first such request in the UK. The idea is to isolate stem cells from the cloned embryos which are genetically identical to the donor. These could be used to replace lost cells without any fear of tissue rejection.

Naturally, this raises the issue of "spare parts". Is it right to create a twin of yourself, even a fourteen-day-old ball of cells of one, to pull to bits to plug gaps in yourself? That may be a rather crude and emotive way of putting it, but perhaps that is what we would be doing. Of course, a permanent cure for conditions such as diabetes or Alzheimer's disease would be wonderful, but are we creating people in order to kill them to do so? Or are we just creating a specialised (and rather useful) cell structure from someone's donated cells?

Ideally, of course, we could find a way of creating stem cells without creating embryos. But only embryonic cells are pluripotent -- able to develop into all cell types of the body. If we did find some way that didn't involve cloning, to produce what would, in effect, be embryonic cells, perhaps this could still be called an embryo, even if it's not organised into an embryo shape. After all, it has the potential to become a whole human.

Actually, this ideal process, of creating pluripotent stem cells direct from adult cells, has already been done. By a commercial company, which has patented the technique, and plans to sell the stem cells thus produced. They claim that it is simple and quick. Well, they would. And nobody else can use it without paying the company. Hence, presumably, the continued exploration of therapeutic cloning. But even if they have patented their own method, it opens the possibility of other methods of doing the same thing. And surely then we should be concentrating on this avenue. Not only does it avoid the needless creation and destruction of embryos, it's also likely to be more reliable. Cloning has so far been only fitfully successful at best. Better than finding a cure for diabetes is finding a cure for diabetes that works well.

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