More Misleading Headlines on Supposed Embryonic Advance

Bioethics   |   Rebecca Taylor   |   Oct 7, 2011   |   6:26PM   |   Washington, DC

The media is all a buzz about the announcement that researchers in New York were finally able to clone a human embryo and extract stem cells from it. 

Newspaper headlines everywhere are implying that this technique has made it possible to create an embryonic stem cell line that is genetically identical, what is often called “patient-specific” or “tailor-made”, to the patient and therefore could be used to generate stem cells for treatment.  Look at this Reuters headline:

U.S. scientists for the first time have used a cloning technique to get tailor-made embryonic stem cells to grow in unfertilized human egg cells, a landmark finding and a potential new flashpoint for opponents of stem cell research.

Except that scientists did not make “tailor-made” embryonic stem cells at all.  To theoretically make embryonic stem cells by cloning, one would have to remove the nucleus of a donor egg, then place inside the 46 chromosomes of the patient being cloned.  The egg is stimulated into thinking it was fertilized and a cloned embryo is created.  That cloned embryo would have the 46 chromosomes of the patient as its genome.  The cells it would create, except for a small amount of DNA left by the woman who donated the egg, would be “tailor-made” to the patient cloned.  Researchers would then destroy the cloned embryo for the cells inside.

But this traditional cloning technique, tried and tried again, has been unsuccessful.  In humans the cloned embryos do not continue dividing and no stem cells are harvested.  So this time scientists decided to leave the nucleus of the egg alone and just insert the 46 chromosomes of the patient making an embryo with 69 chromosomes, a serious genetic condition called triploidy, which is nearly always fatal before birth.

The embryonic stem cells extracted from these genetically disabled embryos also had 69 chromosomes.  So unless the patient cloned also had triploidy, there is no way these cells are “tailor-made.”  They instead have half of another person’s genome in them as well.  How is that “patient-specific?”

In reality, what these scientists did is intentionally create human organisms with a devastating genetic condition to be destroyed for cells that are not only NOT a genetic match to the patient but could never be used to treat any patient.

Many people have been asking me why?  Why do such an experiment?  The answer is quite simple.  Pluriptoency.  Researchers want pluripotent stem cells.  Pluripotent is a term used to describe a cell that is undifferentiated.  A pluripotent cell can become most or all of the cell types in the body.

So why is pluripotency desirable?  Well, it was thought that best way to get any kind of cell that was needed for therapy was to start with a pluripotent cell and differentiate it into the cell type of interest.  Scientists envision taking pluripotent stem cells and making them into any kind of cell they wanted or any kind of cell the patient needs.

Pluripotent stem cells can come from embryos made from IVF that are ripped apart for the stem cell mass inside. But those embryos would not be a “genetic match” to the patient.  So after Dolly the sheep was cloned, scientists wanted to use the same cloning technique to create embryos that are clones of the patient and then destroy them for the “patient-specific” pluripotent stem cells inside.

There are many problems with cloning, both morally and practically, but one of the biggest is that cloning requires human eggs which puts woman at risk for exploitation.  This recent “cloning” technique is no different.  To clone these triploidy embryos, women were paid to undergo and invasive and difficult procedure that has grave risks including loss of fertility, possible link to future cancer and in rare cases, death.

The good news is that recently scientists have been able to induce pluripotency without creating embryos or using eggs.  They are able to take a fully differentiated cell like a skin cell and reprogram it back to pluripotency.  These are called induced pluripotent stem cells or iPSCs.  Instead of ripping open embryos or using eggs to create cloned embryos, iPSC technology uses other means like placing the differentiated cells in certain chemicals that reprogram them back to pluripotency. Some researchers are skipping the pluripotent stage altogether and directly reprogramming one cell, like a skin cell, into another like a neuron.

Induced pluripotent stem cell technology makes these new “cloning” experiments even more egregious because it proves that cloning embryos to get pluripotent stem cells is not necessary.  Scientists can already take my skin cell and make a “tailor-made” pluripotent stem cell line without creating my clone and destroying it for the stem cells. They can certainly do it already without creating a clone of me that also has an additional 23 chromosomes from another woman.

This new “cloning breakthrough” not only does not make “tailor-made” stem cells, but it is totally unnecessary.  It puts women’s health at risk, it creates and destroys life, and all for stem cells that could never treat a single patient.  I hardly call that an advance. Note: Rebecca Taylor is a clinical laboratory specialist in molecular biology, and a practicing pro-life Catholic who writes at the bioethics blog Mary Meets Dolly. She has been writing and speaking about Catholicism and biotechnology for five years and has been interviewed on EWTN radio on topics from stem cell research and cloning to voting pro-life. Taylor has a B.S. in Biochemistry from University of San Francisco with a national certification in clinical Molecular Biology MB (ASCP).