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.

4 thoughts on “Stem cell field stumbles on cloning dialogue”

  1. Totally agree with you on the poor messaging by the stem cell research community. Years ago I felt they gave in on the definition of embryo and we have been behind the eight ball ever since. If you go to an old dictionary a fertilized egg goes through several stages of development and the embryo is created after implantation. Since all ethical stem cell research prohibits implantation that stage is never reached. By allowing the word embryo to be used when talking about embryonic stem cell research you give those that fear the research the image of a formed or forming baby which is exactly what the anti stem cell research people want. I wish all of us would stop using the word embryo and instead use the correct term of blastocyst or fertilized egg.

  2. Hi Paul – not sure if you’ve seen the Cibelli, Lanza, West article, published in Scientific American in 2001, that contained a detailed Independent Ethics Advisory Board review of all the issues pertaining to the first human cell cloning experiments using SCNT science.

    As I understand it Parthenotes cannot biologically develop into a viable human embryo but can produce “embryonic” stem cells for Therapeutics. It will be interesting to see if as an additional option SCNT and Parthenogenesis technology will merge – Dr. Mitalipov speculated that they may not cross over due to the required extra effort to activate but he didn’t seem to sure and it is not his area of expertise really…


    (this was posted earlier but ended up in the wrong CAMR thread but belongs here – maybe the other should be deleted?)

    1. Thanks, msemporda.
      I have seen that Sci Am article, but not read it in a long time. I will take a look again as I don’t recall what it said exactly. Clearly after 12 years have passed, it seems more dialogue and brainstorming, ethics-based publications, etc on cloning are desperately needed today.

      Very early human embryonic development remains poorly understood. I don’t think we can be certain as to what will or will not “work” in terms of SCNT-based reproductive cloning, parthenogenesis, oocyte nuclear transfer-based treatments for mtDNA diseases, etc. because for ethical and legal reasons there have been very few experiments. My general feeling, however, is that a great deal of caution is in order and people need to openly talk about the issues, discuss what IS known, and so forth. Instead in the past week we’ve mainly seen people doing the opposite.

  3. Pingback: News – Stem cell field stumbles on cloning dialogue (Knoepfler Lab Stem Cell Blog) | Stu's Stem Cell Blog

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