Human Exceptionalism

Lead Into Gold: More Scientists Eschew ESCR and Cloning for IPSC Research

It may not yet be a full fledged exodus, but it would appear that the tide has changed dramatically. Where just a few years ago the clamor to overturn the Bush policy was touted throughout the media and among the politicians of the Science Establishment, it now appears that many of the world’s top scientists are moving away from ESCR/Cloning and toward IPSC research.

At least that is the take of the splendid bioethics newsletter Bioedge. In the latest edition, for example, it tells of George Q. Daly, the former president of the International Society for Stem Cell Research turning to IPSC research–even though only a little while ago he testified that cloning offered the best hope for obtaining patient specific pluripotent stem cells. From the story:

Like a number of other leading stem cell scientists, Dr Daley seems to be quietly abandoning human embryonic stem cells, which are obtained by destroying human embryos. This represents a radical about-face. Back in 2005 he testified before the US Senate that: “Although [reprogramming] is worth pursuing, it is extremely high-risk, and may take years to perfect, and may never work as well as nuclear transfer [cloning], which we know we can practice today.” [Me: Of course, that was, shall we say, a misstatement. Scientists couldn’t practice human nuclear transfer then, and as far as we know still cannot today.]
He was certain then that therapeutic cloning was the only sure path and demanded a change in legislation. “Already proven routes to obtaining embryonic stem cells from excess IVF embryos or through the use of somatic cell nuclear transfer,” he continued, “should not be put on hold pending the outcomes of the more speculative methods.

As it turns out, by using these “more speculative methods” Dr Daley and his colleagues have made more progress in six months than he had in years toiling over embryonic stem cells.

Bioedge notes a similar change in California:

Until August, all press releases from the CIRM described it as “the largest source of funding for human embryonic stem cell research in the world”. In January it scolded President Bush for not realising that “human embryonic stem cells clearly remain the gold standard for research into pluripotent cells”. It firmly squelched hopes about reprogramming: “it will not, for the foreseeable future, be suitable for clinical studies in human because of safety concerns”.

In May it stated that it was funding new facilities to allow human embryonic stem cell research “and other stem cell approaches”. The latest press release, dated August 13, however, contains a small but significant change in the CIRM’s self-description: “in the world”. It appears that the CIRM’s love affair with slow, inefficient, expensive, ethically fraught and legally complex human embryonic stem cells may be drawing to a close. In the very near future the CIRM could be boasting that it is the “the largest source of funding for pluripotent stem cell research in the world, as well as other stem cell approaches”.

If this continues, and it becomes clear that the tide is irreversibly flowing toward IPSCs, the political ability to create an international ban on human cloning without the catcalls of CURES! CURES! CURES! to distract leaders from doing the right thing will increase. We may actually be able to throttle human cloning before it gets too far out of the test tube.

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