Scientists in the U.S. say they have cloned a human embryo -- not to produce a cloned human being, but to harvest cells for use in research and treating diseases. The announcement has revived the debate over the ethics of such research.
Prague, 26 November 2001 (RFE/RL) -- The company Advanced Cell Technology (ACT) is trumpeting its experiment as a "milestone in therapeutic cloning."
The U.S.-based firm says it effectively cloned an embryo using a human egg and an adult human cell. DNA was removed from the egg and replaced with DNA from the adult cell. The egg began dividing as if it had been fertilized by sperm, forming a six-cell embryo in its very first stages of life.
Announcing the results, the company's vice president, Robert Lanza, said ACT is not planning to produce cloned babies. ACT, he said, is interested in therapeutic cloning -- producing embryos whose cells can be used to treat diseases -- distinguishing it from reproductive cloning, which would involve embedding the embryo in a woman's womb and letting it grow to become a baby.
He said in a statement: "Our intention is not to create cloned human beings, but rather to make lifesaving therapies for a wide range of human disease conditions, including diabetes, strokes, cancer, AIDS, and neuro-degenerative disorders such as Parkinson's and Alzheimer's disease."
But Lanza's statement has done little to mollify opponents of embryo research -- or to allay fears that such research will one day lead to cloned human beings.
Raymond Flynn, president of the National Catholic Alliance, said the experiment represents a moral breakdown. He said: "Human reproduction is now in the hands of men, when it rightfully belongs in the hands of God."
The Vatican today condemned the experiment, saying the scientists had tampered with a human life and not just simple cells.
Doctor Sandy Thomas is the director of the Nuffield Council on Bioethics in the UK. She says the experiment does seem to live up to its hype: "These experiments do seem to be the first report of early-stage human clones being created for the purposes of creating new cells and tissues. So yes, it is an important step."
Thomas says therapeutic cloning -- like other stem-cell research using embryos left over from infertility treatment -- has real potential to help people suffering from many kinds of diseases: "Potentially [it could be useful with] all kinds of diseases where new cells and tissues might be needed. That would range right from diabetes patients to those with degenerative diseases, such as Parkinson's or Alzheimer's. Also certain sorts of cancer patients, patients with heart disease, patients with skin conditions arising, say, from burns. Wherever you can imagine where cells and tissues are needed -- and generally these are often not available -- there is real potential for this technique to be useful."
But Thomas says the technique -- as often happens with any new technology -- could be abused: "What is of some concern is that in the U.S. they don't have in the private sector the same framework for regulation that we have had in the U.K. It's effectively unregulated. I think that is a bit of a cause for concern, though that company has made its proper intentions very clear."
U.S. federal law prohibits the use of taxpayer money for experimenting on human embryos, and ACT is a privately funded company. However, legislation is already in the works that would ban embryo experiments outright.
Thomas says she expects other governments would follow suit if an individual or company planned to clone a human being. She says the risks are too high: "The success rate to produce animal clones like Dolly [a cloned sheep] is still extremely low. The reasons for that are not fully understood, but certainly some of the animals that have been born have been stillborn or larger than they should have been or had other irregularities. So to produce a healthy clone is something that is quite difficult to do in animals. The kinds of abnormalities that one would accept in animal experiments to make better medicines for human beings -- one would obviously not be able to allow that research to take place in human beings themselves. There's a great deal of experimental work to be done before -- even on safety grounds, let alone ethical grounds -- one could possibly give a sympathetic hearing to any kind of proposal to clone a human being."
She says apart from the risk of abnormalities, there would be serious psychological effects on someone with an adult "identical twin."
"One has no experience on this, so it might have a very negative psychological effect on that child because they might feel they would not have the freedom to be an individual as with an older twin [around], part of their life had sort of been mapped out before them. We don't know how people would feel, but it would possibly be quite a burden for the individual concerned. So we need to think very carefully about this kind of thing."
ACT used the same technique pioneered by the British scientists who created Dolly the sheep four years ago. Harry Griffin, a scientist at Roslin who helped create Dolly, poured cold water on ACT's work, saying their preliminary results were a small-scale experiment: "It is more a political and ethical milestone than it is a scientific milestone and certainly not a scientific breakthrough," he told Reuters.