|Back to Immortality |
The Opportunities and Challenges of Therapeutic Cloning
Michael D. West, Ph.D.
Embryonic Stem Cells
President George W. Bush addressed the American people on August 9, 2001, to describe his policy relating to human embryonic stem cell research. He suggested that all federal funding be limited to the number of cell lines that had been isolated as of that date. He expressed his moral concerns about further efforts to isolate the cells, stating his religious belief that the entities from which the cells were derived were not in fact simply a clump of unformed cells, but instead were in fact very small people.
There are several problems with the President’s position. The practical one is that even if federal funding led to our ability to efficiently manufacture some cells of great therapeutic value, they would not be available to you—that is, the body would in most cases reject the transplanted cells as being a foreign invader. The miracle in the laboratory could not easily lead to a comparable miracle in the hospital bed.
The use of somatic cell nuclear transfer for the purposes of reversing time’s arrow on a patient’s cells has been designated therapeutic cloning. This terminology is used to differentiate this clinical indication from the use of nuclear transfer for the cloning of a child, which in turn is often designated reproductive cloning.
Since the debate over thera-peutic cloning began, the power of the technique has become increasingly impressive. In April 2000, my colleagues and I reported evidence that the egg cell could act as a “cellular time machine,” not only reversing the arrow on differentiation (that is, not only converting a body cell like a skin cell into an embryonic stem cell), but also doing the unimaginable, returning the aged body cell to immortality and rewinding the clock of cellular aging as well. These results, now reported for multiple mammalian species, suggest that we may have the potential to reverse the aging of human cells in the same manner.
This would mean that we could make young cells of any kind for a patient of any age. While this “time machine” is expected only to be big enough to take on a single cell, the resulting regenerated cells could theoretically be expanded and turned into cells that repopulate our blood with young immune cells, or cells that can re-seed our blood vessels with fresh young cells, or indeed young cells of any kind to treat a vast array of currently untreatable diseases.
In the face of lives molded and bounded by death, we are forced to choose our own position on these new technologies. In the summer of 1999, as I stood with my mother in a small hospital room, I knew my position in the debate. I would do anything to save the life of my mother—anything, that is, short of harming an actual human being.
And I had strong reasons to believe that therapeutic cloning would not have to create an individualized human being, even at the earliest states of development. I would risk my life, my finances, my reputation; I would give anything to help her.
Death Is the Enemy
I walked to my car later that night, wandering aimlessly into the darkness. I had no itinerary, no plane reservations; I felt like driving randomly into the night. I looked overhead in that warm summer sky and stared at a bright but waning moon and I recognized its significance. The moon has for millennia been a source of encouragement to mankind facing the bleak realities of death and of loss. In 14 days, it is cut into pieces like the death of Osiris, but it always regenerates in an eternal fugue.
In the years to come, science and medicine will deliver on the promise of regenerative medicine. It is inevitable that the immortal cell, which can do so much to alleviate human suffering, will find its way to the hospital bed. But when these new therapies are available for our loved ones entirely depends on how we as a society grapple with these important issues.
The United States has a proud history of leading the world in boldly exploring new tech-nologies. We did not hesitate to apply our best minds in an effort to enable a man to walk on the moon. We were not paralyzed by the fear that we would anger the gods by reaching for the heavens. But a far greater challenge stands before us now. We have been given two talents of gold. The first, the root of immortal human life, is the human embryonic stem cell. The second is nuclear transfer technology. Shall we, like the good steward of the Bible, take these gifts to mankind and courageously use them to the best of our abilities to alleviate the suffering of our fellow human beings, or will we fail most miserably and bury these gifts in the earth?