Page 923 - Week 03 - Thursday, 3 April 2008

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damaged through accident or disease. Stem cells can be obtained from an embryo, natural or cloned, which usually involves killing the embryo, or they can be obtained from adults, children, umbilical cords, placentas or cadavers.

Cloned embryos are the subject of the current bills. Scientists hope that they can create stem cells which match the DNA of a particular patient using human embryo cloning. The process requires the creation and destruction of cloned human embryos, which is unethical, and research to date has shown many problems in deriving treatments from cloned embryos. In fact, no treatments have been produced using a cloned human embryo, despite years of research in some countries.

The world’s first cloned human embryo was reported in the scientific literature in early 2008. The researchers used somatic cell nuclear transfer, or SCNT, to clone five early-stage embryos, called blastocysts, from donated human eggs and skin cells from two men. The news of the world’s first cloned human embryo did not generate the media storm that might have been expected. This is most likely because the California cloners’ work was outstripped by a breakthrough in ethical stem cell research which was reported in November 2007. Over 70 treatments have been developed using ethical adult stem cells. The long list includes treatments for brain cancer, ovarian cancer, skin cancer, several types of leukaemia, multiple sclerosis, arthritis, Parkinson’s disease, spinal cord injury, anaemia, stroke and regeneration of the corneas—in fact, all the diseases that people say that we need embryonic cloning to cure.

Two papers, one by Yamanaka in the journal Cell2, and one by Thomson in the journal Science3, show that the ordinary skin cell of a human can be transformed into the equivalent of an embryonic stem cell without ever creating or destroying an embryo. These leading international laboratories working in embryonic stem cell research have shown that pluripotent 4 stem cells—iPS cells—can be induced from an adult mouse and human cells. These findings were verified in late 2007. These iPS cells have been shown to have all the properties previously attributed to embryonic stem cells and thus provide a means of preparing individually tailored pluripotent cells without the ethical problems involved in therapeutic cloning.

To this must be added the fact that iPS cells can be readily prepared, whereas human therapeutic cloning is an inefficient process that has only been reported once in the peer-reviewed literature in 2008 and is likely to require unacceptably large numbers of egg donations by women, with all the attendant risks of that procedure. The recently published first success with therapeutic cloning in a primate required 304 monkey eggs to be provided in order to produce two embryonic stem cell lines.

Professor Ian Wilmut of Edinburgh university is famous for cloning Dolly the sheep and is regarded as the father of cloning. He has announced he would now pursue ethical adult stem cell research following the latest breakthroughs in this field. Even Professor Loane Skene, a leading member of the previous government’s Lockhart committee which recommended therapeutic cloning, told ABC radio:

It’s a very exciting breakthrough and if it works then it wouldn’t be necessary to use the embryo process any longer, which would take away a lot of the ethical concerns.

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