|Commentary on Therapeutic Cloning|
Pulling the plug on a disastrous dead end
Therapeutic cloning has failed. Finally, what was in the air concerning the most grandiose scientific fiasco of recent times has reluctantly been admitted through explicit statistical data and deluding results.
Until now an awareness of the lack of success remained confined to specialized journals and conventions, without ever reaching the public at large.
Cloning research, which implies the creation and destruction of human embryos, was publicized as the masterplan to achieve miraculous cures.
Even the colossal fraud concocted by the Korean Hwang Woo Suk did not dismantle the myth. Hwang, who is considered a hero in his Country, convinced the international scientific community he had succeeded in obtaining human embryonic stem cells through cloning.
It was completely false. But even when the fraud was unmasked, the cloud discrediting the method did not overshadow it.
Recently, however, the scientist Ian Wilmut, world famous for having cloned the sheep Dolly, announced his intention to abandon research on human embryos, declaring that the "100 times more promising" way to obtain embryonic stem cells is what has been marked out by a Japanese scientific team.
The new method, defined by Wilmut as "revolutionary and exciting", consists in making adult cells regress to the embryonic stage by means of genetic manipulation. Wilmut's enthusiasm indicates that the Japanese researchers' study, soon to be made public, is most likely not a bluff.
Embryonic stem cells are unique: they are plenipotent, which means they can transform into any type of body tissue. The great scientific promise is to be able to substitute this for tissue damaged by illness, thus overcoming degenerative pathologies such as, for example, Alzheimer's or Parkinson's disease.
In order to transplant a tissue or an organ without fear of rejection, however, genetic compatibility is necessary: the stem cells must have the same DNA as the patient. To obtain them an oocyte is emptied, extracting the nucleus and substituting it with a somatic cell of an individual adult.
With proper stimulation, the embryo which develops from the modified oocyte will have the same genetic code as the individual from which the somatic cell was extracted.
If the embryo is implanted in the uterus and left to grow, it is reproductive cloning, like that which produced the sheep Dolly; if it is instead destroyed on the 14th day to obtain stem cells, it is therapeutic cloning, like the one that should have brought about the creation of tissues and organs "made to order" for the individual patient.
The problem, however, is that no laboratory in the world has ever been able to produce stem cells from human embryos with this system. Therapeutic cloning has proven to be a myth, a fading mirage.
In regard to reproductive cloning, it obviously has been experimented on animals only, and the results cannot be said to be splendid. The success of this method is very low, not above 2 percent, and the few specimens that come to be born are generally assailed by sicknesses and die soon after.
Yet, how often have we read that the serial sacrifice of human embryos was destined for the good of humanity, and that it was useful in order to find new therapies rapidly?
How often in recent times and in different countries is it repeated that putting limits on research is cruel, as if the cure was there within reach, impeded only by an anti-scientific resistance, and therefore an obstacle?
In recent years how many scientists have uselessly raised — and sometimes structurally — the hopes of the sick?
Today, Wilmut's good-bye to the practice of cloning demonstrates that those who have always opposed research on human embryos were right, not only on the ethical level but also on the scientific.
Cloning has proven to be a disastrously mistaken research goal which for years has soaked up immeasurable finances and deviated too much energy to a dead end.
If doubts and complexities regarding therapeutic cloning have grown in recent times, one must also consider the United States Federal Government's financing block on research projects that entailed the destruction of human embryos. It was a political decision that has provoked controversies, but it has led to stimulating avenues of alternative research and has made clear the problem of the relationship between science and ethics.
Many scholars hold that science must be able to govern itself, and that no one can impose barriers from without. But if the world of scientific research was obstinate enough to travel a dead-end road for so long, it is also because it has not met with external obstacles on its journey.
Coming to terms with a limit curbs self-reference and assists in recognizing error more easily. To submit one's actions, like all human actions, to ethical judgment is also useful for the scientist.
Weekly Edition in English
28 November 2007, page 14
L'Osservatore Romano is the newspaper of the Holy See.
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