America's 'Clone War'

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When someone mentions human cloning, what comes to mind? Star Wars with Jango Fett and the Clone Wars? The Star Trek clones, Shinzon and Jean-Luc Picard? Or maybe Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World, with gestating vats of identical “deltas?”

These futuristic societies highlight fully-grown human clones, but even in today’s culture, the controversial idea of human cloning holds ongoing fascination for researchers.

Technically termed somatic cell nuclear transfer (SCNT), this cloning technique recently has become a topic in legislation, and a highly controversial one: dealing with the very essence of human life makes even hardened politicians pause. States across the nation – from New York to Texas to Ohio to Minnesota – are currently debating cloning laws. In Ohio, for example, the legislature is proposing a ban on the cloning of human embryos for any purpose (as well as a ban on human-animal hybrids), making any effort to do so a misdemeanor.

Briefly, SCNT involves transferring the nucleus (the chromosomes) of a somatic cell (a normal body cell) into an egg that has had its own chromosomes removed. The resulting single-cell cloned embryo is indistinguishable from an embryo created through natural fertilization, but has the DNA of the somatic cell donor.

All cloning creates an embryo; the question then becomes how the embryo is used.

When placed into a womb in hope of a live birth, the use is termed “reproductive cloning,” but if the embryo is instead disaggregated, or broken apart, for experiments, the use is called “therapeutic cloning.” These cloned embryos are created with no intention of allowing them to grow and develop, as in reproductive cloning, but rather with a destiny for destruction. These are two ends or uses for the same clone, not different types of cloning. Likewise, an embryo created through in vitro fertilization (IVF) could also be implanted in a womb, or disaggregated for experimentation. The other part of the bill bans human-animal hybrids, a means for researchers to practice their cloning techniques.

Some university researchers and those in the biotechnology industry claim laws banning human cloning will negatively affect embryonic stem cell research.

Cloning proponents often spout clichés touting the “potential” of SCNT cloning to produce treatments and “cures,” muddying distinctions between cloning and the different types of stem cell research. They focus on positive aspects of “stem cell research” while ignoring scientific reality. Stem cells are the key to cures, they say, and there is little disagreement with that, but they always seem to forget half of the evidence. Adult stem cells are indeed showing promise and even results with treating patients, but embryonic stem cells are not.

The issue, however, is the link between cloned embryos and stem cells. If you listen to the bill’s critics – who want unrestricted experimentation on human embryos – the link sounds monstrous and unbreakable. This is simply not true.

The word “cloning” is over-used; its definition has become confused and often misunderstood. The procedure banned by this bill creates a human embryo; it does not create stem cells. It bans a technique for gathering embryonic stem cells, but even this claim runs into a harsh reality check. No researcher has, to date, managed to garner such cells from a cloned embryo, despite many efforts to do so. Any embryonic stem cells used in the lab have, so far, come from other sources.

If cloning and stem cell research are linked in the public mind, it is because of the disingenuous mixing of concepts by proponents of cloning and embryonic stem cell research. Confusion about the facts leads to confusion about results and, ultimately, to inaction.

Even when one ignores the fact that all successful stem cell studies have come from adult stem cells (not embryonic), it is difficult to see what effect a cloning ban would have on the field of stem cells. We may not be a society of Clone Troopers, evil clones and “decanted” children, but even with therapeutic cloning for research purposes, science simply does not support the claims of cloning’s proponents.