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Cloning and Stem Cells: A Fake, a Red Herring, and a Surprise

Posted by Jesse Reynolds on April 15th, 2008

Hwang Woo Suk
Hwang Woo Suk

I ran across three brief, interesting items regarding cloning and stem cell research yesterday. First, the infamous embezzler, plagiarizer, and disgraced stem cell researcher Hwang Woo Suk is trying to resume human embryonic stem cell research in South Korea, but that country's health ministry is delaying a decision on whether to give permission. The brief item from the AP, though, implied he is aiming for cloning-based stem cell research:

The Health Ministry said Monday it will wait until August to decide whether to approve Hwang's request for permission to carry out research on embryonic stem cells using human eggs, citing his ongoing trial. [emphasis mine]
Second, in a move for which the word "ironic" is too weak, one of the leading proponents of cloning-based stem cell research warned that the new alternative of induced pluripotent stem cells (iPS) will lead the world closer to reproductive cloning, which - he tells us -  is just unacceptable. Robert Lanza, chief scientific officer of Advanced Cell Technology, which has invested heavily in somatic cell nuclear transfer, seems to be on something of a campaign:
“In addition to the great therapeutic promise demonstrated by this technology, the same technology opens a whole new can of worms,” Dr Lanza tells the Independent.

“Cloning isn’t here now, but with this new technique we have the technology that might be able to actually produce a child. If this was applied to humans it would be enormously troublesome,” Dr Lanza tells the Telegraph.

“It raises the same issues as reproductive cloning and although the technology for reproductive cloning in humans doesn’t exist, with this breakthrough we now have a working technology whereby anyone, young or old, fertile or infertile, straight or gay can pass on their genes to a child by using just a few skin cells....

“It is quite possible that the real legacy of this whole new programming technology is that it could introduce the era of designer babies.”
This is specious, coming from a man who has dedicated much of his professional life to creating clonal human embryos via the same technique that has led to reproductive clones in over a dozen mammalian species. If any method will lead to human reproductive cloning and designer babies, it is somatic cell nuclear transfer, not iPS. His comments were a follow-up to his letter to Science published last December:
[W]hile the technology to clone a human being does not currently exist, the ability to use iPS cells to make a chimeric human (i.e., using iPS cells to contribute to an embryo that would be a chimera) may be much closer to reality.

Considering the immense power of this technology, it is imperative that an effort is made by scientists and governments to understand the ramifications of this new breakthrough and to ensure that it is used in an ethically responsible way for the benefit and progress of humanity.
Funny, I never heard him issue such warnings regarding somatic cell nuclear transfer.

Finally, while browsing though that issue of Science, I ran across a brief essay on iPS and cloning-based stem cell research by Jose Cibelli, who is both Lanza's former colleague at ACT and a collaborator with Hwang on one of his fraudulent papers in Science. In a pleasant surprise, Cibelli asks, in light of the iPS developments,
Is human therapeutic cloning no longer needed? The short answer is no, but it is likely a matter of time until all the hypothetical advantages of therapeutic cloning will be implemented with induced pluripotent stem cells. More importantly, the controversial issues (ethical and technical) specific to human therapeutic cloning may well be left behind along with the procedure itself, a refreshing change for the field, indeed.

HT to Secondhand Smoke for the Lanza item. 

Previously on Biopolitical Times:

CGS debates libertarian bioethicist Ronald Green

Posted by Osagie Obasogie on April 14th, 2008

In a recent Washington Post commentary, Dartmouth ethicist Ronald Green advocates everything from designer babies to human reproductive cloning. On Tuesday, CGS' Richard Hayes and Marcy Darnovsky will give their take on these matters. Hayes' commentary will be posted in the Outlook section of the Washington Post's website; Darnovsky will discuss the issues with Green on NPR's Talk of the Nation. (11 am Pacific / 2 pm Eastern)

Updates: Richard's article is now online at the Washington Post website. Listen to Marcy at Talk of the Nation [MP3].

Immortality breakthrough! Read all about it!

Posted by Marcy Darnovsky on April 14th, 2008

Every once in a while I check to see what's new with the transhumanists, that strange bunch of guys (and a few gals) who stump for the End of Humanity As We Know It. What caught my eye this time was George Dvorsky's recent piece called "Eight tips to dramatically improve your chances of living forever."

Transhumanists, for those who haven't stumbled across them, want to use genetic engineering, nanotech robots, neural interfaces with computers, and other ultra-tech gizmos to produce what they variously call "posthumanity" and "homo perfectus."

One core transhumanist come-on - in fact, the very first plank of "The Transhumanist Declaration" - is "redesigning the human condition" so as to banish aging. Transhumanists talk about "extreme longevity" and "radical life extension." More than a few believe that technology-enabled immortality is just around the corner. For those of us alive today, they say, the trick is to hang on long enough for the rapture - oops, I mean "longevity escape velocity."

Okay, it's silly. But given their aspirations, you'd expect the transhumanists to have some exceptional insights into staying healthy and hale. So it was with a bit of eagerness - I admit it - that I clicked to see the list.

And now, without further ado - drum roll - here's tip number one: Eat your fruits and veggies.

Tip number two: Avoid sodas and chips.

Other radical advice includes wearing your seatbelt and getting plenty of exercise.

To be fair, there are several hints unique to transhumanism. Tip number seven: send us money. And, tip number eight, just in case all of the above doesn't work: Freeze your head. Helpfully, Dvorsky includes links to the websites of two cryogenics companies.

The punch line to this one? "And they lived happily ever after."

The Many Hats of Robert Klein

Posted by Jesse Reynolds on April 11th, 2008

In many ways, this weekend's stem cell research advocacy gathering in San Francisco is unremarkable. Many of the same speakers can be found at similar meetings and mini-conventions several times each year. But this one is staged by Americans for Cures, led by Robert Klein, who is also the head of California's multi-billion dollar stem cell research agency. Not only is he juggling two incompatible roles - stem cell booster and public servant - but under his guidance, his advocacy organization has attacked his political opponents, praised his own work, and spread misleading information.

To call Klein a "stem cell czar" is easy, perhaps even modest. He was the primary author of the ballot initiative that created the agency (and insulated it from most public oversight and accountability). He was the chair of the campaign for the initiative’s passage, as well as the campaign’s largest donor. After its passage, Klein was unanimously nominated to chair the board of the new agency, the California Institute for Regenerative Medicine (CIRM). In fact, the requirements for the job that he wrote into the law fit his own experience so closely that few other Californians could even have qualified for consideration.

After the ballot measure passed in November 2004, Klein tried to wear both hats, those of booster and of public servant. The initiative campaign transformed into the advocacy group California Research and Cures Coalition, which remained headed by Klein and operated out of his business office in Palo Alto. In response to public criticism, he quickly resigned from the organization.

But Klein couldn't resist politicking for his cause. In 2006, a new group appeared, Americans for Stem Cell Therapies and Cures, with Klein again at the helm. Its first action was to issue a public letter smearing Sen. Deborah Ortiz (D-Sacramento) on the eve of her primary election for Secretary of State. She had been the most vocal supporter of the stem cell initiative in the state house, but was now backing legislation to reform the agency. As a taxable lobbying group, Klein's outfit raised also raised money for his political allies in the fall 2006 general election.

Now, Americans for Cures has assumed the mantle of both the California Research and Cures Coalition and Americans for Stem Cell Therapies and Cures. Two months ago, it issued a press release backing one of Klein's pet projects at the CIRM. What's more, it is extensively downplaying the potential of a new alternative to the use of embryos in stem cell research - an alternative whose ascendance would call into question the relevancy of CIRM and its use of taxpayer dollars during a time of budget crunching.   

To top it off, the group is exaggerating the state of cloning-based stem cell research, implying inaccurately that stem cells have already been derived via this technique. Some tidbits from its website:

A research process called somatic cell nuclear transfer (SCNT), sometimes referred to as "therapeutic cloning", allows scientists to produce embryonic stem cells without using sperm to fertilize an egg.
Embryonic stem cell research utilizes a process called therapeutic cloning, or somatic cell nuclear transfer (SCNT), to copy cells with the goal of making stem cells to better treat and cure people with serious diseases and injuries. Using SCNT, scientists can produce embryonic stem cells without using sperm to fertilize an egg.
Patient Specific Stem Cells [glossary entry]: Stem cell lines, developed through somatic cell nuclear transfer (SCNT), that match a patient. These cells could be useful as therapeutics to replace disease tissues or, in the case of cells from someone with a genetic disease, to study how the disease occurs.
(Bear in mind that, with a new presidential administration, it’s almost certain that funding for cloning-based stem cell research is all that will be left to distinguish CIRM's portfolio from that of the federal government.)

It can be difficult to see the public funding of stem cell research for what it is: An appropriate use of taxpayer dollars that has popular support in California, but that must be balanced against both changing understanding of the research's potential and other funding priorities.

Considering an analogy to a better-known domain can be illuminating. Imagine the response if the appointed head of California’s Department of Transportation was also the leader of a highway-building advocacy group that issued statements praising the department head, attacked his or her political opponents, raised funds for allies, spread misinformation about the benefits of highways, and compiled arguments against mass transit and bicycling.

It wouldn't "pass the smell test" for a moment, and this shouldn't either. 

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