- The Washington Times - Thursday, February 12, 2004

Yesterday, scientists in South Korea announced — through publication in the Journal Science Express — the first successful cloning of a human embryo, and the subsequent derivation of a line of stem cells from that clone. The announcement demonstrates that policy-makers need to step into the debate before ethics loses the footrace against scientific advancement.

To produce the cloned embryos, scientists used somatic nuclear transfer, a technique long used to create animal clones. Therapeutic, not reproductive, cloning was the goal. Had it been the latter (a technique almost universally condemned as unethical), the researchers could have attempted to initiate a pregnancy by implanting the cloned embryos in a womb. Instead, the scientists developed the embryos to the point at which they contained pluripotent stem cells that could be isolated.

Health care professionals have long been excited by the potential that such cells have for treating a wide range of diseases. If the cells could be grown into the tissues that degrade during various aliments, such as Parkinson’s disease or juvenile diabetes, they would circumvent the tissue rejection problems typical in transplants.

As a consequence, several countries have prohibited human cloning but are racing forward with stem cell research. The United Kingdom, with some of the world’s most liberal laws on the subject, has established a Stem Cell Bank, from which researchers can withdraw adult, fetal and embryonic stem cells. Other nations including Denmark, Sweden and China allow the procurement of human embryonic stem cells. Two years ago, the Australian government decided to allow human embryos existing in fertility clinics to be used in stem cell research. This past December, a Japanese government panel recommended allowing limited stem-cell research on human embryos.

U.S. studies have gone at a slower pace, a consequence of President Bush’s decision to limit federal funding of stem-cell research to a small number of lines. Serious doubts have been raised about the sufficiency of those lines, since they have been exposed to potential contamination by mouse feeder cells. At the least, the decision has put the United States at a competitive disadvantage in the field. It may also delay potential cures.

While other issues have taken the fore since the president’s August 2001 announcement, yesterday’s news demonstrates how necessary it is for a renewed national debate on the subject. Human cloning has moved closer to reality, and even therapeutic cloning is fraught with ethical perils. Those issues are examined in some detail in the recently issued report of the President’s Council on Bioethics, “Monitoring Stem Cell Research,” available at www.bioethics.gov.

Science will not wait for ethics to catch up. It is up to policy-makers to even the race.

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