Researchers Get OK, Reporter Gets Confused

Filed in Science, Social IssuesTags: Clone The Truth, Cloning, Sanctity of Life, Stem Cells

So much mis-information, so little time...

Two teams of Boston scientists announced Tuesday that they will attempt to creating the world's first cloned human embryonic stem cells.

Technically speaking, stem cells, by definition, clone themselves. Stem cells are self-replicating.

Harvard Stem Cell Institute and Boston Children's Hospital researchers said they will try to develop a powerful new tool to explore the biology of and create disease-specific stem cell lines that could lead to the treatment of a wide range of now-incurable conditions afflicting tens of millions of people worldwide.

Note to reporter: stem-cell research - especially embryonic stem cell research - is not required to explore the biology of a "wide range of now-incurable conditions." (Though, given the poor grammatical structure of the lead-in sentence, I'm unsure whether she meant "biology of...a wide range of now-incurable conditions" or "biology of...stem cell lines.")

Researchers plan to initially focus on diabetes and then expand to include neurodegenerative diseases, such as Amyotrophic Lateral Sclerosis, better known as Lou Gehrig?s Disease, and blood disorders.

Note, again, to reporter: adult stem cell treatments are already proving effective in these areas.

The method, called somatic cell nuclear transfer, involves removing the nucleus, which contains DNA, from an affected cell and replacing it with the nucleus from a donor cell, researchers explained. The cell is then forced to divide into multiple cells that are genetically identical to the healthy donor cell. The method has already proven successful in animal research. Patients with diabetes, blood disease and neurodegeneration will donate the cells. Embryos that were created through in vitro fertilization that have been deemed incapable of producing a pregnancy will be the source of the embryonic cells.

This has to be the most inaccurate explanation of SCNT I've yet seen. Just to clarify:

In somatic cell nuclear transfer the nucleus of a somatic cell (a cell other than a sperm or egg cell) is removed and the rest of the cell is discarded. In parallel, the nucleus of an egg cell is removed. The nucleus of of the somatic cell is then inserted into the denucleated egg cell. The egg, now containing the nucleus of a somatic cell, is stimulated in such a way that it begins to divide.

So, to correct:

  • Enucleated somatic cells are not necessarily "affected" cells; they are simply non-gametic cells from the person to be cloned.
  • The enucleated somatic cell is not placed into an enucleated somatic cell; it is placed into an enucleated egg.
  • The result is not simply another cell; it is a zygote genetically identical to the donor of the somatic cell.
  • The resultant zygote is not merely genetically identical to the donor somatic cell; it is genetically identical to the donor of that somatic cell.
  • The resultant zygote is not forced to divide into multiple cells; it is electrically induced to begin self-directed mitosis, from which the single-cell zygote proceeds into the various stages of embryonic development, and beyond.
  • IVF embryos have absolutely nothing to do with SCNT. Using IVF embryos is an alternate, and currently, only successful, means of harvesting embryonic stem cells.

Moving on:

Human embryonic stem cell research has long been at the center of controversy because in extracting healthy cells, days-old human embryos are destroyed. Embryonic cells are used because they are capable of developing into any cell or tissue type in the body. Opponents of the work claim that no potential medical benefit can justify the destruction of what they view as a human life.

"What they view" as human life? Embryologists universally agree that first, the blastocyst from which stem cells are harvested (and which is destroyed in the process) is an embryo, and second, that embryos, being self-directing in their growth and development, are living. Thus, human embryos are human life.

Harvard President Lawrence Summers is hopeful the research will lead to millions of people being able to live healthier lives.

"While we understand and respect the sincerely held beliefs of those who oppose this research, we are equally sincere in our belief that the life-and-death medical needs of countless suffering children and adults justifies moving forward with this research," Summers said in a release about the work.

Then again:

"Given that embryos are human beings, they have a right to self and a right to life. Exploiting their parts (ie, cells) or killing them for research is moral trespass that society should not allow. Even if the research might, and let’s be clear, might benefit others, this trespass is not justified."

--James Sherley, Ph.D. associate professor of biological engineering at MIT