U.N. Pro-Cloning Seminar Fails to Convince Delegates

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Pro-cloning advocates held a seminar at the United Nations on June 2 to attempt to convince delegates not to pass a treaty that would ban human cloning research. U.N. delegates who attended “Human Cloning Issues in all its Aspects” expressed concern, however, that the presentations were “one-sided” and “biased,” exaggerated claims of the potential for embryonic stem cells extracted from human clones, and did not address the problem of exploiting women in order to obtain human eggs needed for cloning.

Genetics Policy Institute, headed by attorney Bernard Siegel, sponsored the event, which spotlighted scientists known to advocate human cloning. Denouncing so-called reproductive cloning, they stood united in opposing “making cloned babies” but also unified in their desire to create cloned human embryos to further their research.

Dr. Lawrence Goldstein of the University of California-San Diego, and co-founder of the biotechnology company Cytokinetics, explained that scientists want cloned embryos that are intentionally created with diseases. These smallest of humans would have “valuable uses” to “understand the unique patterns of disease susceptibility, and to understand genetically complex diseases.”

Dr. Gerald Fischback, executive vice president for Health and Biomedical Sciences and dean of the faculty of medicine at Columbia University, stated that doctors have the responsibility to communicate clearly that therapeutic cloning is radically different from reproductive cloning. However, graphics shown in a presentation throughout the seminar revealed that the method for both is exactly the same. The only difference is whether the scientists implant the embryo in a womb, or divert them for use in research.

Dr. Rudolf Jaenisch, member of the Whitehead Institute for Biomedical Research and professor at Massachusetts Institute of Technology, approvingly called therapeutic cloning “putting the patient in a test tube to study diseases and defects.” Human clones could be a source of “tailored therapy, with no immune rejection” since the clone would be identical to the patient.

Jaenisch turned the table on the well-worn argument that fertilized embryos (from in vitro fertilization) that will not be implanted in their mothers should be used for research. He posited that research on these embryos “could destroy potential life.” Cloned embryos, on the other hand, could only produce abnormal babies. “There should be less of an ethical problem to use cloned embryos than fertilized embryos,” he concluded.

Several scientists emphasized that creating cloned babies is “dangerous,” since cloned animals suffer severe defects such as enlarged organs, twisted tendons and malformed bone structures. Yet, confusingly, some of the speakers said they needed the stem cells from cloned embryos as material to treat patients. Dr. Ian Wilmut, creator of Dolly the sheep, brushed aside this “paradox” by stating, “Cloned humans would be abnormal, but cloned embryos would be OK.”

A delegate asked if there is any way to distinguish which embryos are fertilized and which are cloned. Jaenisch answered, “Yes, the potential to be implanted and make a normal individual.” Although this “potential” relies on how another person uses the embryo, he did not explain how this quality would be identified. He added that a second way would be through “which key early genes are expressed.”

Alan Trounson, of Monash University and executive vice president of the National Biotechnology Centre of Excellence, as well as “Global Scientific Strategy Advisor,” admitted that scientists could “mistakenly” implant the wrong embryos. However, he said the likelihood of it “becoming a child,” or surviving, is small.

Asked whether there has been misleading information in the cloning debate, Ian Wilmut cited “claims that scientists could select embryos that can produce a healthy child.”

South Korean scientists Shin-Yong Moon and Woo Suk Hwang, who won fame recently for being the first to prove they had created cloned human embryos, are embroiled in a scandal over how they obtained the human eggs used in their research. Moon gave one short statement at the seminar: “I would like to ask the U.N. not to prevent therapeutic cloning.” Hwang surprised the audience by ending his speech endorsing research cloning with a Powerpoint slide “expressing thanks and gratitude to the voluntary oocyte [egg] donors.”

A delegate asked Moon and Hwang about the potential of trafficking in eggs obtained from disadvantaged women in developing countries. Moon brusquely retorted “the import of oocytes is impossible,” and the delegates “worry too much.”

Dr. Gerald Schatten, Magee-Women’s Research Institute and the Pittsburgh Development Center, threw the responsibility for dealing with scientists who encourage trafficking in women’s eggs onto the United Nations. It is up to the delegates, he said, to “grapple with medical care for all” and to “redouble efforts to make a better world.”

Another delegate dug further. He noted the dilemma of trafficking in human organs, in which poor people are exploited and prisoners are killed for their organs. Similarly, he asked, if cloning is allowed, how could it not be misused for reproductive cloning? The best way to prevent reproductive cloning, answered Moon, is to separate the “egg-producing hospital” and the cloning lab by more than an hour of travel. This response left audience members flummoxed. The place where eggs are extracted has nothing to do with whether the cloning lab uses the embryos for research or implantation.

Schatten tried to recover from Moon’s faux pas by announcing that a small number of cloned embryos could be deposited in a “bank” from which the whole world could withdraw. How could it be, I asked him after the seminar, that advocates say that cloning is “necessary” in order to produce identical replicas of patients to use in their treatment, since each patient would need their own clones to avoid immune rejection. Yet he’s now arguing that a bank with a small number of clones would do the trick? Only a close match is needed, Schatten answered, like with organ transplants between family members. Yet, I pointed out, organ recipients still need anti-rejection drugs regardless of the close match. At this, Schatten walked away.

Repeating a refrain throughout the seminar, Dr. Douglas Melton of Harvard University said the United Nations should provide “judicious guidelines free of particular religious views.” He said this after he belittled opponents of cloning, and called embryos “cells that are not equivalent to people” since they are not conscious. Pro-cloning scientists are “ill-equipped to compete” in the debate, he said, because they are “accustomed to precision” and not accustomed to “semantic trickery.”

This was an especially strange accusation, it was noted, given that the seminar claimed to provide “all aspects of human cloning.” The seminar was based on the duplicitous premise that there are two kinds of cloning (which proponents now call somatic cell nuclear transfer, or SCNT), although their own charts show there is only one method. Perhaps Dr. Melton could benefit from the guidelines that come from particular religious views, such as: thou shall not murder and thou shall not lie.

A few scientists showed more honesty, admitting that:

  • They are more than 10 years away from any success;
  • Embryonic stem cells can turn into tumors;
  • Adult stem cells can provide treatments while no embryonic stem cell has been used to treat patients; in fact, no clinical trials have been conducted using embryonic stem cells; and
  • Moral questions, such as the status of embryos and that cloning research’s likelihood of benefiting only the wealthy, continue to dog the debate.

Bernard Siegel closed the seminar by noting he is a lawyer, trained to deal only with facts. One delegate noted privately that the Bush administration opposes all human cloning and the administration has lawyers, so it must have facts other than those presented at this seminar.

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