As the Federal Government still debates the issue of human cloning, the impression remains that on the one side of the debate are scientists, and on the other are religious folk. The media likes to pretend that this is a fact versus faith battle. But there are plenty of scientists who are sceptical of the case for embryo creation and research.
One such scientist is professor James Sherley of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. The expert in biological engineering has been advising our Parliamentarians on the reasons why we do not need to clone human embryos.
In today’s Australian (October 12, 2006), he makes his case. In a piece entitled, “No path to find cure-all,” he asks this question: if the Australian Government agreed to ban human cloning in 2002, why are we now revisiting that discussion? “Certainly, if it was wrong to clone human embryos in 2002, it is still wrong today. The basis for some to reverse their position and promote the use of cloned human embryos for research is their belief that embryonic stem cells produced from cloned embryos will yield an amazing medicine chest of new cures for debilitating diseases.”
He says there are at least three reasons why we do not need to go down this path. “First, it is well known that cloned embryos and the stem cells derived from them have defects in their genetic program. These defects will certainly render tissues derived from them ineffective and potentially dangerous. Second, cloned embryonic stem cells, as with embryonic stem cells in general, form tumours when transplanted into adult tissues. Though some scoff that this problem can be solved with research, it is as difficult as curing cancer.”
The third reason is “due to a fundamental aspect of mammalian biology. Embryonic cells cannot be used to replace adult tissues. Adult stem cells are responsible for the continuous renewal and repair of adult tissues and organs. They accomplish this by dividing to remake themselves and create new cells that mature to carry out the function of the tissue.”
He continues, “These mature cells have a limited lifetime and must be continuously replaced by the special division of adult stem cells. Embryonic stem cells cannot replicate in this fashion and the mature cells proposed from them are not sufficiently long-lived to allow effective cures for diseases and injuries in the tissues and organs of children and adults.”
The hype about miracle cures from embryonic stem cells just does not add up: “Scientists in Australia who promote research based on cloned embryos may be interested in probing living human beings at the earliest stage of life, but they are certainly not going to provide any benefit in the form of new cures. Even the proposal to use cloned human embryos to investigate adult disease mechanisms has no scientific legs. The worth of such studies will be limited by the inherent genetic defects in cloned embryos and, fundamentally, diseases that arise in the adult are not likely to manifest until later in embryonic development, if at all before birth.”
Sherley does see hope in stem cell research however. But it is in adult stem cell research, not embryonic. That is where all the success lies, and it presents no ethical problems. “Despite similar misinformation to the contrary, adult stem cell research is a viable and vibrant path to new medical therapies. Even calling them an alternative to embryonic stem cells misinforms the public. Why? Because embryonic stem cells provide no path at all.”
It is hoped that our politicians will take heed to the warnings of Sherley and others, and not be seduced by the siren call of embryo research. That call simply leads to a dead-end.