It’s a major scientific breakthrough, and it could lead to new treatments for diseases like Parkinson’s and diabetes — but this development also takes us one step closer to human reproductive cloning. The howls of outrage have already begun.
This achievement is literally 16 years in the making. Ever since Dolly the sheep was cloned via somatic cell nuclear transfer, scientists have wondered if a similar technique could be used to produce human embryonic stem cells. Now, researchers at Oregon Health and Science University have figured it out.
A major impetus behind the research was the desire to create undifferentiated stem cells that wouldn't be rejected by a recipient's own immune system. To achieve this, a research team led by Shoukhrat Mitalipov removed the DNA from donated unfertilized human eggs and inserted them with skin cells extracted from a human adult. After coaxing them with precisely-timed electronic pulses, an inactivated virus, and a chemical bath (which included a bit of caffeine), the cells began to divide — a viable colony was born.
It’s a breakthrough that will eventually lead to therapeutic cloning in which patient-specific lines of embryonic stem cells can be generated. In future, these stem cells will be used to help a patient restore his or her own tissue, like heart cells or other bioengineered organs.
It should be noted that the researchers did not plant their human embryos. What’s more, they say the technique can’t lead to the birth of a viable baby.
But as Andrew Pollack from The New York Times notes, “Nonetheless, the fact that the scientists were able to get cloned human embryos to survive long enough for stem cell extraction is likely to be seen as a step on the way to human reproductive cloning.”
He notes the concern:
The Conference of Catholic Bishops, for instance, said Wednesday that the research “will be taken up by those who want to produce cloned children as ‘copies’ of other people.”
Cardinal Sean O’Malley of Boston said human cloning was immoral, even if used for therapeutic purposes, because it “treats human being as products, manufactured to order to suit other people’s wishes.”
Similarly, Tad Pacholczyk, director of education for National Catholic Bioethics Center, called the approach unethical, noting that “It involves the decision to utilize early human beings as repositories for obtaining desired cells. You’re creating them only to destroy them.”
All this said, the breakthrough may be on the late side. Scientists can now use adult skin cells to create a stem cell very similar to embryonic cells, but without the need for embryos — thus making it a more ethically palatable option.
Read the entire study at Cell: "Human Embryonic Stem Cells Derived by Somatic Cell Nuclear Transfer."
Images: Oregon Health and Science University.