Thursday, March 10, 2011

'Journalism' at its worst: Andy Birkey, cloning and ESCR

Andy Birkey of the Minnesota Independent reports on the human cloning ban just introduced in the state Legislature. The premise of his story is that (as he explains in the first sentence) "under the guise of banning 'human cloning'" the bill would actually "ban embryonic stem cell research."

Seriously? Birkey, out of embarrassing (and easily rectified) ignorance, thinks embryonic stem cell research always requires somatic cell nuclear transfer (cloning), concludes that the legislation must therefore be based on a deception, and then writes a "news story" based on that conclusion.

Somatic cell nuclear transfer (SCNT) is a cloning process that creates a new organism genetically (virtually) identical to the donor of the somatic cell. Many people have advocated using SCNT for "therapeutic" or "research" purposes, which would involve killing the resulting human embryo for its stem cells.

But cloning isn't the typical means of acquiring embryonic stem cells for research. The primary source of embryonic stem cells has always been so-called "leftover" embryos donated from in vitro fertilization clinics. The alternative possibility of using SCNT created excitement among some researchers (about 10 years ago, before it failed to pan out as hoped) because in theory it could lead to pluripotent stem cells genetically matched to the patient (who donates the somatic cell), thus avoiding the normal embryonic stem cell problem of immune rejection.

So: SCNT is closely related to embryonic stem cell research, but it is not the same thing. Most embryonic research has not involved SCNT (in fact, proponents of embryonic research have often argued by disassociating themselves with SCNT and swearing that they are only interested in using "leftover" embryos). Some scientists -- including some at the University of Minnesota -- thought using SCNT could help advance embryonic stem cell research and (potential) treatments, but that has not happened. (Embryonic research as a whole has been a bust, while ethical alternatives have resulted in dozens of treatments for human patients.)

The new bill in the state Legislature would ban human cloning -- the use of SCNT to create new, living members of the species Homo sapiens, probably in order to then kill them -- not embryonic stem cell research.