SCIENTISTS from the University of Newcastle have applied to the Human Fertilisation and Embryology Authority for permission to clone a human embryo. Hurrah! This is a long-overdue advance to which HFEA should give its assent.
Human cloning is almost magical in its potential. Consider diabetes, which is the focus of the Newcastle team’s experiment. One form of diabetes, Type I, develops when insulin-producing cells in the pancreas are destroyed, perhaps by a viral or autoimmunological attack. Unless insulin is injected regularly thereafter, patients will die within weeks. Yet even with regular insulin, diabetic patients can suffer from long-term side-effects such as loss of vision or hardening of the arteries, which lead to premature ageing and death. But if scientists could create new insulin-secreting cells and implant them into patients, then these diabetics would be cured — free of injections or anxiety. That is the dream of the Newcastle team.
Human embryos consist of “stem” cells that can, on careful handling, be turned into insulin-secreting cells. In the process known as “cloning”, eggs will accept DNA from strangers, and embryos from those eggs can be persuaded to grow new cells that are essentially indistinguishable immunologically from those of the strangers. As a result, they can be implanted into the DNA donors with no risk of rejection. In short, the cells can cure Type I diabetes.
TRADITIONALISTS, of course, are opposed. I am bored with traditionalists. These are the people who, during the 19th century, opposed anaesthetising women in childbirth because Genesis iii, 16 stated that, “in sorrow thou shalt bring forth children”. They were happy, though, for men to be anaesthetised for operations because Genesis i, 21 stated, “the Lord God caused a deep sleep to fall upon Adam” before the removal of his rib.
Now traditionalists tell us that embryos possess immortal souls and that cloning is murder. They also speak of creating Frankenstein lives. But human cloning cannot, at present, create new lives, because such clones would have to be implanted within a woman’s womb, which is illegal in Britain (Even if implanted, such clones would soon die, no one knows why). Further, human embryo cloning is so uncertain a technology that it has been achieved only once — by a Korean team this year. So we are not about to suffer the Attack of the Clones.
Although some people might endow a collection of insensate cells with an immortal soul, I reject such medieval bigotry as — well, medieval bigotry. In a world where abortion is legal and commonplace, the fate of a few insensate cells is trivial. Yet traditionalists retain great power. In America, President Bush is prepared to condemn adult criminals to death, yet has effectively blocked stem-cell research.
But, as Mr Bush’s neocon friends frequently remind us, in a globalised world different jurisdictions can compete with each other. Britain has benefited from an influx of great American stem-cell biologists who have migrated in search of a non-medieval research environment. We are poised to lead the world in this humane technology. And even palaeocons are bemused. Nancy Reagan, supported by 58 senators, is lobbying Mr Bush to facilitate stem-cell science in the US.
We are living through the great era of biology. Human embryo cloning and the cloning of adult human stem cells both offer vast potential. Since our only obstacle to exploring these nascent sciences is the traditionalists’ invocation of mystical texts, a future of universal good health awaits us. HFEA should permit the Newcastle plan.
[The author is a clinical biochemist and Vice-Chancellor of the University of Buckingham]
From Dr John R. Ling - my original letter
Sir, Terence Kealey produces some disingenuous arguments (Thunderer,
17 June) in favour of cloning, and then destroying, human embryos in order to
obtain stem cells for the treatment of serious medical conditions.
When referring to those of us who disagree with his bullish ‘we have the technology, let’s use it’ approach to medical science, he resorts to silly caricature and personal abuse by calling us medieval bigots.
But his greater mischief is to mislead your readers into thinking that human embryos are the only source of stem cells. This is simply not true. As the scientific literature makes abundantly clear, stem cells can also be derived from bioethically-uncontroversial sources, such as, adult bone marrow, umbilical cord blood, or even milk teeth. Moreover, the outcomes of several preliminary trials using these non-embryonic stem cells have been little short of spectacular.
Furthermore, Dr Kealey fails to grasp the fact that we so-called ‘traditionalists’ are not opposed to stem cell technology per se - indeed, we are excited by its potential. Dr Kealey is therefore quite wrong to label us as ‘obstacles’ to medical progress. It is the source of those stem cells that troubles us.
JOHN R. LING
4 Cefn Melindwr, Capel Bangor,
Aberystwyth SY23 3LS.
My letter, as edited (heavily) and published
June 24, 2004, p. 15
From Dr John R. Ling
Sir, Human embryos are not the only source of stem cells
(Terence Kealey’s Thunderer, June 17). Stem cells can also be derived from
bioethically un-controversial sources, such as adult bone marrow, umbilical
cord blood, or even milk teeth. Moreover, the out-comes of several
preliminary trials us-ing these non-embryonic stem cells have been little
short of spectacular.