Once again, science and morality have crossed paths.
Scientists at a small biotech company claimed to be the first to have cloned human embryos from adult skin skills. Scientific and religious communities, however, have raised doubts as to whether the claim should be considered an achievement and further raised ethical concerns.
Scientists of Stemagen, a stem cell research and development firm in La Jolla, Calif., announced last Thursday that they had produced cloned embryos using skins cells from two men and eggs from women. Five embryos developed into blactocysts – the stage considered by scientists as viable for harvesting stem cells.
They claim it was the first time scientists were able to use cells from adults to produce cloned embryos.
The report is published online in the journal Stem Cell.
Samuel H. Wood, chief executive of Stemagen, whose skin cells were cloned, emphasized to The Washington Post that his interest was directed toward medicine and diseases and not toward cloning people, which he described as "unethical" and "illegal."
There is no comprehensive ban on human cloning in the United States, although there is legislation banning cloning for both research and reproductive purposes.
Critics, however, already consider the process used to harvest stem cell lines from the embryos as unethical since it results in the destruction of life.
Bioethics Defense Fund President Nikolas T. Nikas said the announcement "marks a new and decisive step toward turning human reproduction into a manufacturing process."
He said the new report highlights the necessity of state and federal legislation banning the creation of cloned human embryos for any purpose.
"The creation of human embryos for the purpose of exploitation as raw material for lab experiments is grossly immoral and a blatant violation of human dignity," he added.
Richard Doerflinger of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops also raised social concerns about the mass production of developing human lives for the purpose of destruction.
Furthermore, he pointed out that the study "does not show that a viable or normal embryonic stem cell line can be derived this way, or that any such cell has 'therapeutic' value."
The significance of cloned human embryos lies in their potential to create embryonic stem cell lines, which are prized by scientists who hope the stem cells could be used toward producing personalized replacement stem cells to treat diseases. The team at Stemagen, however, did not harvest the stem cells from the cloned embryos, leaving many scientists short of being impressed with the research.
Also, some scientists said the research left many questions to be answered including whether the embryos were actually healthy enough to be viable when implanted in a womb.
"I'd really like to believe it, but I'm not sold yet," said Robert Lanza of Advanced Cell Technology to The Washington Post.
Despite marketing the potential of embryonic stem cells, scientists have yet to use them in the treatment of any diseases in human beings. Studies showed that lab animals which were subjected to treatment derived from embryonic stem cells developed tumors.
On the other hand, the use of stem cells from non-embryonic sources – such as umbilical cord blood, placentas, fat and bone marrow – has produced treatments for at least 73 human ailments, according to Do No Harm, a coalition promoting ethics in research.
Pro-life advocates say embryonic stem cell research is unnecessary in light of the numerous success stories for treatment derived from adult stem cells. They also object to embryonic stem cell research as a waste of taxpayers money and the exploitation of women for their eggs.
The clones were made using a method called somatic cell nuclear transfer (SCNT), the same cloning technique used to clone Dolly the sheep.
A few months ago, supporters of non-embryonic alternatives were encouraged to hear that the scientist who cloned Dolly had abandoned the SCNT technique to pursue research that converted adult skin cells in human beings into the functional equivalent of embryonic stem cells. Scientists in Wisconsin and Japan reported in November that they used a technique called "somatic cell reprogramming."
The development was hailed by pro-life advocates as a breakthrough method to develop embryonic-like stem cells without the destruction of embryos.
That celebration was short-lived, however, when Children of God for Life, reported that the researchers had used cells from aborted fetal cell lines to produce a virus to reprogram the adult cells into embryonic-like stem cells.
C. Ben Mitchell, director of the Center for Bioethics and Human Dignity in suburban Chicago and a consultant for the Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission, said there is a line science should never cross.
"The principle is clear: Science should never perform an evil act – or contribute to evil acts – in order to achieve good ends. So, deriving therapies from electively aborted fetuses ethically taints the discovery," he said in a Baptist Press report.
"Science that serves the common good must take the moral high ground and resist complicity with evil."