Yesterday, Oregon-based scientist Shoukrat Mitalipov succeeded in cloning monkey embryos and deriving embryonic stem cells from them. The Westchester Institute, a Catholic ethics think-tank that has engaged in the stem cell debate, reacted with concern to the announcement calling the breakthrough a “double-edged sword.”
In a press release on Wednesday, the Executive Director, Fr. Thomas Berg stated, "Insomuch as research on cloned primates can provide basic biological insights into human disease and tissue growth, this is a golden opportunity. The risk lies in applying the cloning technique to humans. Such a pursuit, if successful, would be one of humanity's darkest endeavors."
Mitalipov's success with monkey embryo cloning provides the theoretical foundation for scientists to pursue so-called "therapeutic" cloning in humans. Embryonic stem cells from a cloned human embryo, because they would be genetically identical to a patient, could be used in potential treatments without prompting an immune rejection response. However, the scientific community generally agrees that prospective treatments from embryonic stem cells are likely many years away.
"Notwithstanding this new breakthrough, it's still not clear that researchers will have success if they apply Mitalipov's techniques to human cells," said Fr. Berg. "It would be unfortunate to divert time, energy, and funding into human cloning, when much needed insights into treating human diseases and maladies can be garnered just as easily from cloned monkeys.
"I spoke with Dr. Mitalipov and he himself underlined how this new kind of research in monkey cloning can actually further our pursuit of ethically uncontroversial alternatives in stem cell research, such as direct cell reprogramming," continued Fr. Berg. "If scientists can learn how monkey egg cells reprogram body cells to an embryonic-like state, this could give us the key to reprogramming human body cells without having to damage or destroy, let alone clone, human embryos."
Direct Cell Reprogramming is conceptually like taking any cell in the human body and "hitting rewind," sending that cell's nucleus back to a state which would render the cell "pluripotent", capable of producing any tissue type in the human body, equivalent in versatility to human embryonic stem cells. Furthermore, these stem cells would be genetically matched to the person who donated the body cells.
Fr. Berg concluded, "Scientists have repeatedly noted that there is still a lot of basic biological research that needs to be done before embryonic stem cells are ever going to lead to cures. That biology can be done perfectly well in monkeys. The supposed urgency to press on to human cloning is unfounded."
The Westchester Institute for Ethics and the Human Person was founded in 1998 to renew, deepen, and promote the Western tradition of moral reflection. The institute pursues its objectives in cultural, political, and academic settings. Through seminars, lecture series, and research fellowships, the Westchester Institute seeks to reinvigorate contemporary moral discourse at all levels.