Yesterday’s report of human therapeutic cloning to make embryonic stem (ES) cell lines is a big deal. I support the work and I believe it is very important.
People’s reactions to it vary wildly depending on their agendas of course.
This post is a no-nonsense overview of the main points.
My overall point. This is just one paper folks. It’s a turning point paper for the stem cell field to be sure, but there is a great deal to still be learned about this technology so I’d recommend against taking extreme positions any time soon on human therapeutic cloning. In other words, don’t make the classic “Dr. Oz” mistake here. Dr. Oz famously got overexuberant about iPS cells so that he declared hESC’s unnecessary and the “stem cell debate dead” on the Oprah show. That was 7 years ago and the debate is still not dead.
Don’t make the same kind mistake here by going to one extreme or another. Also keep in mind that on day one of the iPS cell era in the stem cell field we had a huge number of misconceptions because we simply had so much to learn. Same is true here.
So keeping this all in mind, here are the key talking points bouncing around on the Internet about yesterday’s cloning news and my frank reactions to each.
- Talking point 1. Human SCNT ES cell cloning means that cloned babies will be bouncing out all over the place anytime now.
- Nope. It could happen in as short as 5 years, but it is still probably going to be technically tricky and could end up taking a decade or longer.
- Talking point 2. Human SCNT ES cell cloning means nothing about human reproductive cloning. Don’t worry about that at all! No connection.
- This is overly simplistic. We shouldn’t panic (see above), but yesterday’s story does of course relate to human reproductive cloning and it is a real, deeply serious concern longer term. Some crazy person will try to clone humans. It’s inevitable in the coming decade or so and this paper unintentionally has a connection to it.
- Talking point 3. Human SCNT ES cell cloning means very little since we already have iPS cells. Why did anyone even bother doing this?
- That’s an oversimplification. My bet at this (admittedly very early) time point is that in the long haul (and we are in a marathon, not a sprint) that we end up using all these different types of cells for different applications. I predict that SCNT hESCs will have therapeutic benefits.
- Talking point 4. Human SCNT ES cell cloning means IVF-based hESC lines won’t be needed.
- False. SCNT lines are probably going to be better quality than iPS cells, but worse than IVF-based hESC lines. We’ll see once we have more data.
- Talking point 5. Human SCNT ES cells will soon be competing with and even possibly replacing iPS cells in many applications.
- That’s offbase. While I still personally believe that iPS cells are not 100% perfect, we simply cannot judge SCNT hESCs based on one paper. For all we know they have many issues of their own. In addition, I want to stress that I don’t believe that iPS cells have to be 100% perfect to be incredibly powerful therapeutically and traditional hESCs (not made by SCNT) are not 100% perfect either. Further, even if clinical potential of SCNT hESCs is expanded and realized in some ways, it’s going to take time (i.e. years) even to get off the ground. The first iPS cell-based clinical trial could, in contrast, start as soon as next year (2014).