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Therapeutic Cloning Under Fire

An Interview with Michael D. West, PhD

March 2002

LEF: Isn't it true that the position of the Catholic Church is that, if you destroy the embryo after fertilization, you're destroying life?

MW: That's right. The Catholic Church takes the position (as do some others) that life begins at conception. I just don't know, nor do I think they know, how they came up with this. What happens is that the fertilized egg divides to form a little ball of cells, like a tiny lump of clay. If this little ball of cells doesn't implant in the uterus, it will die. It is estimated that up to 80% of these little balls of cells never attach to a uterus and consequently die. And for those that do attach, one, two or even three human beings, (identical twins) can be formed. We know that. And we can actually determine when individuation begins, which is about two weeks after development begins. So, it simply doesn't make sense to say "a human life begins at conception." Certainly cellular life is created at conception, but it's not yet a human life.

LEF: A cadaver with a beating heart and no brain function can be a source of organs for others, yet nobody worries about that.

MW: Yes, such a person has billions of living cells, even in the brain, but is considered a non-person, yet people argue that a microscopic ball of cells with no body cells of any kind, that you could balance on the point of a pin, should be considered a person with a right to life. I can draw an analogy to the World Trade Center attack. Our critics are in effect saying: "You attacked the World Trade Center buildings." But I argue that not only were there no people in the buildings, but the buildings hadn't even been constructed yet. In fact, the architect hadn't yet decided whether to have one tower or two. That's the stage of development we're talking about here. This microscopic ball of cells is a collection of the most blank cells you could ever find. A piece of dandruff is more human than these cells.

LEF: And this "blankness" is the whole attraction the cells have for therapeutic medicine. It is the reason they can be transformed into any types of body cells. When they did the first heart transplant, there was tremendous opposition. Then it became accepted. Today it is routine. The same thing is going to happen here. The problem is that if they pass a bill outlawing therapeutic cloning, it will be a major obstacle towards its acceptance.

MW: There is a long history here. I think the opposition is generated out of fear of the future and fear of the unknown. Anesthesia for childbirth was resoundingly condemned by the church on the basis of the Book of Genesis in the Bible, where God said women are supposed to have pain in childbirth because of Eve's sin in the Garden of Eden. Smallpox inoculations were objected to as an attempt to subvert God's will. More recently, there was in vitro fertilization (IVF). The Catholic Church called IVF immoral and illicit, and fought hard to try to get it struck down. There were bills debated that would have banned IVF or "test tube babies." But I think what shifted public opinion was seeing that Louise Brown, the first baby produced by IVF, was just like any other baby.


As Dr. West mentioned in his interview, his company (Advanced Cell Technology) is also working on methods of producing replacement cells, tissues and organs that do not involve standard cloning techniques. He spoke about the most unique of these alternative techniques in some detail at his presentation at the Regenerative Medicine meeting in Washington, D.C. in December 2001. The technique is parthenogenesis, or "virgin birth." With parthenogenesis, an egg cell can be activated and made to start dividing with no sperm cell or any new DNA added. Under the right conditions, a new offspring can arise from this process.

Dr. West reported that, when this process was started before monkey egg cells halved their nuclear DNA in preparation for merger with a sperm cell, parthenogenic embryos were formed, from which embryonic stem cells were derived. When these stem cells were injected into nude mice, or grown in laboratory dishes, they formed intestine, skin, hair, cartilage, bone, beating heart muscle cells, at least two kinds of nerve cells (dopaminergic and serotoninergic neurons), smooth muscle, liver and even a developing eye, depending on the growth conditions. While these tissues were not genetically identical to those of the egg's donor, they were made from a subset of the donor's DNA and, as a result, it is thought that they might be close enough to avoid rejection when transplanted. Furthermore, it's known that cells made by parthenogenesis are likely to be healthy because there are healthy humans who are partly parthenogenic because they were created from the combination of a normal embryo and a parthenogenic embryo.

This is all very well and good if you're a woman, but what if you're a man? ACT scientists believe that a male parthenogenic embryo might be created by removing the nucleus from an egg cell and inserting two sperm heads into the cell. This experiment has yet to be done, but there are reasons to believe it might work.

-Dr. Gregory M. Fahy, PhD

LEF: Too bad we can't show a smiling young man who used to be a frowning old man.

Image with Caption
Immature primate neurons

MW: I think the debate is urgent. Even the critics admit these treatments could save millions of lives. Harold Varmus [the previous head of the National Institutes of Health] and others have spoken out. The National Academy of Sciences made a formal report recommending therapeutic cloning. So here we have the nation's best scientists and Harold Varmus, a Nobel laureate, all saying this is important, and the critics take their word for that. Okay, the critics say, so millions of lives could be saved, but even so, we want this stopped because we believe it is against the will of God.

LEF: Let's talk about the bill that is under consideration in the Senate.

MW: First there was the Weldon bill, which passed in the House. It not only bans the reproductive use of cloning, but the medical uses of cloning and the import of any products made from it. If this bill is enacted, and if you were able to have a new sinus node made for your heart in the U.K. using therapeutic cloning, you would then be banned from the U.S. because you'd be importing a product of therapeutic cloning.

LEF: So the big risk here is the fact that it might pass the Senate. I've seen the Senate version of the bill. It's almost identical to the House version.

MW: Yes. Senator Brownback, the sponsor of the Senate bill, is one of the leading proponents of the ban. I think our best hope here is that enough Senators recognize the gravity of the issue. We're talking about millions of human lives. The House pushed this through with only a twohour debate. The Senate, I'm certain, will spend more time on it. It's my hope that this is such a grave issue, involving human health and suffering, that they'll make the right decision. Imagine how their constituents will react when therapeutic cloning begins to save lives. Imagine that it's thirty years from now and Rep. Weldon is being interviewed by 60 Minutes. "Representative Weldon, in 2002, your bill banned therapeutic cloning. It was 15 years before the ban was lifted and, in those 15 years, we estimate that twenty-seven million people suffered needlessly and died because of your ban. What do you think about that?"

LEF: I hope we can put such concerns in enough Senators minds today, so that they won't have to be confronted with that kind of criticism later.

MW: Up to 80% of all pre-implantation embryos die, but I don't see our critics calling for a billion dollar crash program to try to save these embryos. I don't see them protesting against IVF clinics, which throw away thousands of pre-implantation embryos that are not wanted. The potential risk of getting this one wrong needs to be appreciated.

LEF: Did you testify on Capitol Hill before the House version of the bill was passed?

MW: Multiple times. I testified again on December 4, and I'll probably be testifying in the Senate when the bill is discussed there.

LEF: Apparently your testimony had no substantial effect. I mean, how many people voted against the ban in the House?

MW: The bill, called the "Human Cloning Prohibition Act," passed by a 265 to 162 margin. This is a tough one. The scientific community and patient groups really need to work hard on this. All Life Extension members need to start writing letters. We can't get this one wrong for two reasons. One, we have millions of people in the U.S. who need these therapies and two, we're a leader on this issue. The fact that the U.S. Congress is debating it means that it is being watched throughout the world.

LEF: I think the key to is get enough voters contacting the people in the Senate and indicating that there is strong support for this research. It looks as if they're trying to ban therapeutic cloning without much public debate.

MW: Yes, our opponents have tried real hard to do this in a lynch-mob type of way. They feel rushing it through gives them the highest chance of getting it passed because there won't be debate. And if there's debate, they're at risk of losing.

LEF: What effect would this bill's passage have on Advanced Cell Technology?

MW: We have our feet firmly planted in U.S. soil. I was born in Michigan and can't imagine moving the company to another country. The point is that as a country we have to get this one right. We can make a wrong decision on raising or lowering taxes, but we should all cry if we get this one wrong. If nature hands us an important new medical strategy, it's unethical to ban scientific investigation and block medical progress.

At ACT, we're working on other techniques, but none of them is as promising as cloned embryonic stem cells. They include: standard nuclear transfer, nuclear transfer across species, parthenogenesis and cytoplasmic transfer, in which you add the cytoplasm of the egg cell to a somatic cell rather than the other way around.

LEF: When you were publishing that you had created embryos from the transfer of human somatic cell nuclei into cow eggs, there was less criticism than when you started doing it with human egg cells. Maybe in the mind of the legislators, it's only a human embryo if it comes from a human egg.

MW: I think they'll just add crossspecies cloning to their bills. I've debated these people many times. They never answer my rational argument that there are no differentiated body cells created by this process because they know it's true. So they use inflammatory language about "embryo farms," "brave new world," "Nazi experiments" and so forth. One effective slogan they use is "clone and kill." They are trying, in my opinion, to reduce this to another pro-life, pro-choice debate. But in scientific reality, the pro-life position here is to alleviate human suffering and potentially save the lives of millions. The fact is that they are trying to defend blank human cells at the cost of breathing, thinking human beings.

LEF: But abortion is legal, despite opposition to it. Why should therapeutic cloning be any different?

MW: I think we need to focus on the potential benefits for the sick and elderly. I think it will come down to patients who want a cure for heart failure, kidney failure and so forth. I would argue that "lack of cloning kills". You can see that I'm energized over this one, but frankly I'm furious that such a powerful means for good is actually at peril in our modern world.

LEF: What can members of the Life Extension Foundation who favor therapeutic cloning do to impress the Senators?

MW: Write to them. And call them (see "Don't Let The U.S. Government Ban Therapeutic Cloning" in this issue). Of course, the pro-life camp has their people doing the same thing and they have a very sophisticated means of communicating with the Congress. We have to have a grass roots effort to get people involved.

The people in Congress do look at letters, but I think we also need some additional actions. Such as a relentless stream of press releases in favor of therapeutic cloning by a succession of organizations. On our website (, there are links to the National Academy of Sciences Report and the NIH Stem Cell Report. Both recommend the use of nuclear transfer. Nobel laureates such as Dr. Harold Varmus has stated: "There's not an area of medicine that this technology will not potentially impact." It's always helpful to explain that the nation's most prestigious scientists are in favor of our research. We need to put out a list of all the diseases that could be treated with therapeutic cloning.

We need to get out the message that this can affect someone you care for, using human cells derived from a microscopic dot smaller than the point of a pin. When people understand this, I think most of them will become enthusiastic about the technology.

LEF: Well, that's it then. Thanks a lot for talking with us. Good luck.

MW: I really appreciate your help here. Other projects we've worked together on have been fun, but this one really matters. Let's work hard on it.