There’s major news in the world of biomedical research today: For what seems to be the first time, scientists have successfully cloned human embryos. In a paper published online in the journal Cell, researchers from Oregon Health and Sciences University reported that they had created embryonic-stem-cell lines by cloning and then destroying human embryos. What these scientists have achieved is the long-anticipated goal of many stem-cell-research advocates: therapeutic cloning, the creation of cloned human embryos for biomedical research or regenerative medicine. This field has seen a number of false starts and disappointments, most notably the scandal of Hwang Woo Suk’s fraudulent 2006 paper, but also some more recent reports of cloning attempts that were only partially successful.
Terminology has always played a major role in debates over human cloning, with advocates of therapeutic cloning sometimes hiding behind the technical jargon of “nuclear transfer” or “cellular reprogramming.” This kind of terminological chicanery was on display in the press release from Oregon Health and Sciences University, which bore the title “OHSU research team successfully converts human skin cells into embryonic stem cells.” University press releases have an unfortunate tendency to overhype the results of scientific research, so the modesty of this press release’s title might be admirable if it were not concealing or sidestepping the great ethical and political significance of the discovery.
The principal investigator for the study, Shoukhrat Mitalipov, a researcher who has made many breakthroughs in embryology, distanced his team’s work from the more contentious prospect of cloning to produce children, saying in the press release that “while nuclear transfer breakthroughs often lead to a public discussion about the ethics of human cloning, this is not our focus, nor do we believe our findings might be used by others to advance the possibility of human reproductive cloning.” In a report in the scientific journal Nature (with the admirably straightforward title “Human stem cells created by cloning”), David Cyranoski writes that one of the other scientists involved in the cloning research is planning to publish a paper describing why their techniques will not be effective for reproductive cloning. But the methods that they have already described will surely serve as at least an important starting point for any scientists interested in pursuing cloning to create children.
But even if this research does not lead to the production of cloned children, the creation and destruction of cloned human embryos for research is itself deeply unethical. The discovery of human induced pluripotent stem cells (iPS cells) in 2007 was a reason to hope that the promise of stem-cell medicine could be fulfilled without destroying human embryos.
The fact that it would be possible to create stem cells very much like embryonic stem cells but without destroying human embryos seemed to make therapeutic cloning unnecessary for the progress of regenerative medicine. Indeed, as one stem-cell researcher told Nature, “Honestly, the most surprising thing” about the new cloning paper “is that somebody is still doing” human cloning research “in the era of iPS cells.”
But the development of iPS cells, while an important technical achievement, does not in itself resolve the fundamental ethical dilemma. Ethical and political judgment is still necessary. Other scientists continue to raise questions about the reliability and effectiveness of iPS cells, and today’s cloning news will lead to calls for further research comparing the effectiveness of cloning and iPS cells. Political action may soon be necessary for our society to pursue ethically acceptable and medically promising research while avoiding the unethical practice of cloning human embryos and the dehumanizing prospect of creating cloned human children.
— Brendan P. Foht is assistant editor of The New Atlantis: A Journal of Technology and Society.