Thursday, May 5, 2011

A response to Meri Firpo and John Wagner on human cloning

In a new article published by the Minnesota Medical Association, University of Minnesota researchers Meri Firpo and John Wagner argue against the proposed human cloning ban. Their case is exceedingly weak and should offend anyone who cares about the truth. This may seem like hyperbole, but please let me explain. I will divide my critique into four categories.

Issue #1: Definition of cloning

Firpo and Wagner write:
On the surface, the bill ... proposes banning reproductive cloning—that is, outlawing science that culminates in the creation of a human that is a replica of another. Banning human reproductive cloning is a move that every reputable biomedical scientist would wholeheartedly support. But proponents of the bill have admitted publicly at hearings in St. Paul that this legislation attempts not only to prevent human reproductive cloning but also to ban somatic cell nuclear transfer (SCNT), which has been referred to in the lay press as "therapeutic cloning," and restrict embryonic stem cell research.
Both on the surface and in reality, the bill proposes banning not so-called "reproductive cloning" but "human cloning," defined as using SCNT to create a new human organism at any stage of development who is genetically virtually identical to the donor of the somatic cell (read about the SCNT process to understand). The bill does not make use of the misleading distinction between "reproductive" and "therapeutic" cloning, but simply bans human cloning itself, whether for "reproductive" or "therapeutic" purposes.

Firpo and Wagner suggest that "reproductive cloning" and SCNT are two different things. They neglect to mention that reproductive cloning requires SCNT. Indeed, SCNT is the cloning process. The question is then whether the new human organism (created by SCNT) is implanted in a woman's uterus and helped to develop toward maturity ("reproductive" cloning) or killed in the embryonic stage for research purposes ("therapeutic" cloning). The cloning process itself is the same, and the result -- an embryonic human being -- is the same. "If you create an embryo by nuclear transfer [SCNT], and you give it to somebody who didn't know where it came from, there would be no test you could do on that embryo to say where it came from," explains the famous stem cell researcher Dr. James Thomson. "It is what it is."

Firpo and Wagner say concerns about SCNT are "based on a misunderstanding of the intent of medical research." No, our concern is with human cloning regardless of the intent of the one doing the cloning. Firpo and Wagner think cloning is okay because their "intent" is not to let the cloned human organism live very long, but rather to harvest its useful parts.

Firpo and Wagner say, "SCNT ... is not human cloning." That's simply a lie. SCNT is a way to create a cloned human organism. It is absurd to say that "cloning" only happens if the cloned organism develops to a particular stage.

Issue #2: Product of cloning

Appallingly, Firpo and Wagner are unwilling to use even the term "embryo." They call the product of successful SCNT "a formless group of cells that is smaller than the cross-section of a human hair."

That is an intentionally insufficient description. The product of SCNT is not just any group of cells. It is an embryo -- a self-integrated, self-directing organism at the embryonic stage -- from which embryonic stem cells can theoretically be derived. (Stem cells 101: Embryonic stem cells come from embryos.) Firpo and Wagner value (purely instrumentally) the product of SCNT so highly precisely because it is an embryo and not a mere group of cells. If SCNT does not result in an embryo, then it didn't work!

An uninformed reader of Firpo and Wagner's article would be puzzled by opposition to human SCNT. No one cares about "a formless group of cells." But people do care about living members of our species, even at the earliest stages of life.

Firpo and Wagner also write:
The bill's supporters argue that SCNT could lead to the creation of a baby. This is not feasible because cells [embryos] created through SCNT cannot survive for long in culture (they survive only long enough for extraction of their inner mass, from which a new cell line can be derived).
No, that's not the main argument. It's true that SCNT could theoretically be used to grow children ("reproductive" cloning), if huge scientific obstacles to their successful development are overcome, and we (along with Firpo and Wagner) oppose this. The debate isn't about that. The debate is about using SCNT to produce new human organisms to kill while they are still in the embryonic stage of development. That's what Firpo and Wagner want to do. We oppose that practice, not because the cloned embryos are "babies" (that term generally refers to a particular stage of human life -- embryo, fetus, baby, toddler, etc.), but because science tells us they are distinct, living and whole organisms of the species Homo sapiens, and because human beings at all stages and in all conditions deserve basic moral respect.

A clarification: Firpo and Wagner say cloned embryos "survive only long enough for extraction of their inner mass." That's how long Firpo and Wagner want the embryos to survive. To my knowledge scientists have not gotten cloned embryos to live that long. No one has successfully derived stem cells from cloned human embryos.

Issue #3: Ethics of cloning

After misleading the reader about what cloning is and what it produces, what justification for human cloning do Firpo and Wagner offer?

They talk about hypothetical scientific and therapeutic benefits (see Issue #4). But those are beside the point if I am correct about the moral status of the embryo who is created, used and killed in "therapeutic" cloning, for it is obviously wrong to kill some members of the human family for the possible benefit of others.

Other than misleading the reader about the biological nature of the embryo, Firpo and Wagner offer no ethical defense of human cloning for embryo-destructive research. They have given us no reason to think it is permissible. (We have good reason to think it is not.)

It is worth mentioning that many advocates of embryonic stem cell research (using the current source -- embryos "left over" from in vitro fertilization) oppose human cloning. Dr. James Thomson, who pioneered embryonic stem cell research, notes that research with "leftover" embryos is "separate from creating embryos [by cloning specifically to be killed for research]. That [cloning] offends a lot more people, and I can understand why. You're creating something that's a tool, and you're making a tool out of this thing."

Thomson says: "From a public policy point of view, it makes a lot of sense to separate these two issues. ... Part of ... the reason why things kind of stalled, is that nuclear transfer and therapeutic cloning was intermixed with trying to make new cell lines from pre-existing embryos. They're very separable." The University of Minnesota is hell-bent on keeping them together.

Issue #4: Therapeutic potential of cloning

The subtitle of Firpo and Wagner's article reads: "A bill moving through the Legislature threatens to disrupt progress on therapies that are already helping patients." It is difficult to see how that statement could be justified. The bill cannot "disrupt" anything because nothing the bill prohibits is actually happening in Minnesota, as Firpo and Wagner have admitted. So it certainly cannot "disrupt progress on therapies that are already helping patients." Nothing the bill prohibits is helping or has ever helped a patient. (Perhaps Firpo and Wagner are not responsible for the subtitle. They should complain to the publication.)

Firpo and Wagner's argument that ethically-uncontroversial induced pluripotent stem cells (iPSCs) are not sufficient in the goal of making patient-specific pluripotent stem cells -- that stem cells from cloned human embryos may also be needed -- is not particularly convincing. Even the slightest moral qualms seem enough to tip the balance against cloning. Firpo and Wagner assume there are no such ethical problems.

Firpo and Wagner say the lack of any therapeutic success from embryonic stem cell research (ESCR) is a result of "severe funding restrictions put in place under the Bush administration along with other local restrictions." But (1) the federal government has funded research on some human embryonic stem cell lines for the last decade; (2) the private sector has been free to invest in whatever research it considers promising; and (3) many states have invested heavily in ESCR and even human cloning for research.

California poured billions into ESCR, without any therapeutic success. In fact, several years later, the state decided to "concentrat[e] its vast financial resources on projects that could cure conditions such as age-related macular degeneration, AIDS, sickle cell disease and various types of cancer" by "boosting therapies that ... rely on less glamorous adult stem cells," according to the Los Angeles Times. In other words, California decided to direct its resources to the kind of stem cell research that is actually helping patients and offers the greatest potential for helping more patients in the future -- ethically-uncontroversial adult stem cell research.

Dr. Bernadine Healy, former head of the National Institutes of Health, goes as far as writing that "embryonic stem cells are obsolete." In any case, it should be noted that current ESCR would not be affected by the bill under consideration. In fact, no ESCR that has ever happened could be affected, since scientists have yet to derive stem cells from cloned human embryos.

Finally, Firpo and Wagner criticize MCCL for "citing remarks taken out of context from Professor Ian Wilmut  ... and Professor Rudolf Jaenisch." We said this:
Many eminent stem cell researchers are turning away from human cloning in favor of alternatives that offer greater therapeutic promise. Rudolf Jaenisch of the Whitehead Institute conducted embryonic stem cell research on mice for years before abandoning it. "With nuclear transfer you never get normal embryos," Jaenisch told The Scientist magazine. He said SCNT is "of no practical relevance" and that he would never use it in dealing with human embryos. Prof. Ian Wilmut, who cloned Dolly the sheep, has decided to give up his efforts to clone human life.
Can Firpo and Wagner explain how we took anything out of context? We did not say that Wilmut and Jaenisch have ethical objections to human cloning. We said they decided not to pursue it. That is true. According to the UK Telegraph story:
Prof Ian Wilmut's decision to turn his back on "therapeutic cloning" ... will send shockwaves through the scientific establishment.

He and his team made headlines around the world in 1997 when they unveiled Dolly, born July of the year before.

But now he has decided not to pursue a licence to clone human embryos, which he was awarded just two years ago ...

Prof Wilmut, who works at Edinburgh University, believes a rival method pioneered in Japan [iPSCs] has better potential for making human embryonic cells which can be used to grow a patient's own cells and tissues for a vast range of treatments, from treating strokes to heart attacks and Parkinson's, and will be less controversial than the Dolly method, known as "nuclear transfer" [SCNT].

His announcement could mark the beginning of the end for therapeutic cloning, on which tens of millions of pounds have been spent worldwide over the past decade. "I decided a few weeks ago not to pursue nuclear transfer," Prof Wilmut said.

Most of his motivation is practical but he admits the Japanese approach is also "easier to accept socially." ...

"Given the low efficiency, you wonder just how long nuclear transfer will have a useful life." ...

Instead, Prof Wilmut is backing direct reprogramming or "de-differentiation" [iPSCs], the embryo free route pursued by Prof Yamanaka, which he finds "100 times more interesting."

"The odds are that by the time we make nuclear transfer work in humans, direct reprogramming will work too."

What can we take away from Firpo and Wagner's article? They mislead the reader about human cloning/SCNT. They mislead the reader about human embryos. They make a dubious case for the therapeutic potential of human cloning. And they offer no reason to think that human cloning is ethically permissible.

For more about the human cloning debate, see the following posts: