November 24, 2020

The Niche

Knoepfler lab stem cell blog

Stem cell field stumbles on cloning dialogue

circle the wagons on human cloning of ES cells.
Circle the wagons on human cloning of ES cells?

We had the big news last week that for the first time ever, human embryo cloning (aka “therapeutic cloning”) worked to produce apparently normal embryonic stem cells.

I posted about it a few times here, here, and here.

I have tried my best to be factual, open minded, and realistic about the issues.

Frankly, the stem cell field as a whole has done mostly a lousy job handling the human cloning dialogue sparked by the publication of the therapeutic cloning paper last week.

It was one of those classic challenges that was also an opportunity. Unfortunately that window of opportunity is closing, while the challenges will remain or intensify even.

Instead of being part of a rational, fact-based discussion of the ethics and policy issues that were raised, there seems to be a lot of wagon circling and group think going on within the stem cell field.

Some have gone so far as to contact me to say, in effect, “Cut it out!” regarding my open discussion of the cloning issues on this blog. They are not happy with me for my bluntness.

I must not have gotten the memo about the memes that good, well-behaved stem cell researchers are supposed to be sticking to, huh?

Openness and transparency on cloning is crucial, but that’s not what the stem cell field has been advocating in the past week.

What went wrong?

First of all, with all due respect I believe the authors of the paper should have included in their discussion section an overview of the ethical and policy implications of their work. Why didn’t this happen? I don’t know. To be clear, I liked the paper and found it fascinating, but it desperately needed more big picture context.

Second, the journal Cell should have included an accompanying preview and editorial also placing this major finding in the appropriate historical context online. Instead, nothing. Maybe something is coming for the print edition?

Third, the stem cell field should as a whole have been open to discussing the very real issues surrounding this complicated topic of therapeutic cloning and by logical extension the issues surrounding reproductive cloning. The two are at least somewhat linked. That’s a fact that we cannot pretend away.

Yes, cloning is a complicated, ethically challenging issue, but the stem cell field needs to be more open and genuine about talking about it or the field will continue to get criticized  by people on the other side. As a field we also do not engender public trust by futzing around the real issues.

Ethics and policy issues related to cloning should be discussed openly by the field and the leaders of the field have a particular responsibility in this area. I hope to see some of them step up to the plate and show true leadership by talking openly about this stuff.

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