The Telegraph reports that Ian Wilmut—creator of Dolly the sheep, the first cloned mammal—is giving up on his efforts to use cloning techniques in humans, to produce cloned embryos that could then be destroyed for their stem cells. Wilmut’s reason, the paper reports, is the potential of so-called “somatic cell reprogramming”, a technique to transform a regular adult cell into the equivalent of an embryonic stem cell but without the need for embryos. Wilmut says the new approach is not only “easier to accept socially” but also scientifically more efficient and, he says, “100 times more interesting” and capable of producing the same result.
The idea of cell reprogramming has been around a few years now. The President’s Council on Bioethics discussed it in 2005, and President Bush pointed to it in 2006 as an example of a potential scientific solution to the ethical quandaries of embryo destruction and cloning. But until now, most stem cell researchers and most political advocates of embryonic stem cell research have insisted that this alternative technique wasn’t a substitute for cloning or embryo destruction, and wasn’t far enough along to make a difference to them.
Wilmut hasn’t lost his mind. What has changed is the science. His reversal appears to be the first tremor in what is looking to be a massive and swiftly approaching quake in stem cell science and in the stem cell debate. Rumors have been circulating for weeks that researchers have for the first time found real success with somatic cell reprogramming in humans, and that a couple of different teams (including some of the biggest names in embryonic stem cell research) will publish several different methods that have worked—producing the genuine equivalent of human embryonic stem cells, genetically matched to cell donors, and shown capable of being differentiated into the various cells of the body, without the need to use or harm embryos.
If it’s true—and the evidence is mounting that these publications are coming very soon, perhaps in the next few weeks—it will transform the field, and could mark a beginning of the end for the political debate over stem cells and cloning. It would also bring sweet validation for President Bush’s much-maligned approach to this subject: insisting that creative science could find a way around the ethical problems, and so encouraging the exploration of ethical alternatives, not the funding of embryo destruction.
If it’s true.