Wednesday, March 30, 2011

MCCL Blog: Comment on Errors in Star Tribune's Article on Proposed Ban on Human Cloning in Minn.

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Wednesday, March 30, 2011

Star Tribune gets everything wrong about human cloning

It is difficult to point out all that is wrong with the Star Tribune's coverage today of the MCCL-backed human cloning ban (currently before the state Legislature). The reporter, Jenna Ross, is uneducated and obviously not qualified to be writing about this subject. Here are some of the mistakes in the order they appear.

The story starts by claiming that the bill would make human cloning a felony. False. The bill would make human cloning a misdemeanor. (Read the bill!)

Ross then writes:
The bill's advocates say it would still allow stem cell research that does not rely on destruction of embryos, including adult stem cells.
Actually, the bill would still allow not just research that doesn't destroy embryos, but also research that does rely on the destruction of embryos. All of the current embryonic stem cell research happening in the state would be unaffected, because it does not involve human cloning (according to testimony from the University of Minnesota's Stem Cell Institute).

Embryonic stem cell research (which requires the destruction of embryos) is not the same thing as human cloning, which is what the bill prohibits. Human cloning (via somatic cell nuclear transfer, or SCNT) is one possible way of producing embryos for use in research, but all the embryos currently used for research in Minnesota were not produced by cloning. Ross continues:
Opponents say the bill's language -- banning "human cloning" -- is purposely deceptive ...
Our use of "human cloning" -- using SCNT to produce a genetically virtually identical human organism, as precisely defined in the legislation itself -- has been the standard use. It is opponents of the bill who are shamelessly misleading by redefining cloning so that it includes only so-called "reproductive" cloning -- that is, allowing the resulting cloned embryo to live and grow, rather than kill it for research (so-called therapeutic cloning).
The U emphasizes that it has not and will not attempt to clone a human being, a process called reproductive cloning. Think Dolly the sheep, the first cloned mammal. "We have been crystal clear on this," said Dr. Aaron Friedman, the U's vice president for health sciences and medical school dean.
Again, the University has redefined human cloning. The University does support cloning human beings -- it simply opposes letting them live very long. Dolly the sheep was cloned by exactly the same technique that this bill prohibits.
Minnesota Citizens Concerned for Life's broader definition of "human cloning" also includes one kind of stem cell research called therapeutic cloning. In that process, a scientist would extract stem cells from a 5-day-old embryo and then destroy it in a test tube. This bill would ban that too.
The author seems hopelessly confused. Destroying an embryo for its stem cells is not the same thing as therapeutic cloning. Cloning is simply one possible means of creating an embryo for use in destructive research. Generally embryos destroyed for their stem cells are not produced by cloning, but are the result of in vitro fertilization. The bill does not affect this research.
But "there are reasons why I might want to do [therapeutic cloning] in the future," said Dr. John Wagner, clinical director of the Stem Cell Institute, who uses adult stem cells to treat a fatal skin condition in children. Therapeutic cloning offers the possibility of merging a patient's cells with embryonic cells, so there's less risk of rejection, he said.
"Merging a patient's cells with embryonic cells"? Perhaps Dr. Wagner didn't explain it very well. Therapeutic cloning offers the possibility of producing embryonic stem cells genetically matched to the patient, so theoretically there might be no rejection problems. Why are they genetically matched? Because they are derived from the embryo, which is a genetic clone of the patient.

What Dr. Wagner has not explained is what possible benefits therapeutic cloning could offer that (ethically uncontroversial) induced pluripotent stem cells (iPSCs) do not also offer. Indeed, iPSCs seem superior: they are also pluripotent (functionally identical to embryonic stem cells) and genetically matched, but they already exist, they are less expensive, and they are easier to produce. This is why some leading scientists like Dr. Ian Wilmut have switched from therapeutic cloning to iPSC research. And I imagine this is why the University of Minnesota is currently working with iPSCs but not with therapeutic cloning.
Minnesota Citizens Concerned for Life argues that scientists should abandon embryonic stem cells in favor of adult stem cells -- in particular, a process of reprogramming adult stem cells to mimic the flexible properties of their embryonic counterparts.

"In adult stem cell research, money is flowing like a river," Scott Fischbach said. "Money going into embryonic stem cell research is resulting in nothing but dead embryos."

But researchers argue that those methods are far from ready and might never work for certain diseases.
Actually, the process (for iPSCs) is to reprogram regular adult cells, not stem cells, to make them into pluripotent stem cells, just like embryonic stem cells. iPSCs seem to make obsolete the therapeutic justification for embryonic stem cell research and therapeutic cloning.

It's true that iPSCs, like embryonic stem cells, have not succeeded in treating anyone. But "iPSC research" does not equal "adult stem cell research," as the author apparently believes. Adult stem cell research is the only kind of stem cell research that actually is ready and actually has successfully treated medical conditions -- dozens of them. It is therapeutic cloning, and embryonic stem cell research more broadly, that is "far from ready and might never work."

A reporter should not write a story when she knows so little and gets so much wrong. And the Star Tribune is terribly at fault for publishing this. MCCL Blog (Minnesota Citizens Concerned for Life)
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