"As to disease, make a habit of two things - to help, or at least do no harm." - Hippocrates
First Published in SunFlyer
flamboyant Severino Antinori, Italian fertility doctor, little baby Eve is
happy, healthy and thriving somewhere in this world. Eve is, according to Dr
Antinori and Conaid, the world's first cloned human. Her birth has not been
confirmed, but this is hardly surprising. According to Clonaid (who believe that
aliens populated Earth 25 000 years ago through cloning), Eve's parents are
concerned for her welfare should the world learn of her whereabouts.
life? God? The scientist? Is a human embryo life? The tussle for supremacy
between science and soul is fast reaching ground zero, the point of no return,
and is centred on the cell that holds all of life's potential - the stem cell.
A 3-5 day old
human embryo (blastocyst) consists mainly of a group of about 30 cells, which
are known as the inner cell mass. It is from this inner cell mass that the
hundreds of specialised cells needed to form a fully functioning human, will
As these cells
divide and multiply, some will differentiate into blood cells, others nerve
cells or heart muscle cells. Yet others will replicate themselves but remain as
stem cells, holding the potential to become whatever the body needs at a later
stage. As the embryo grows into a baby and as the baby ages, stem cells will at
various stages of life allow for the renewal of, for example, bone marrow or
It can be said
that it is from stem cells that all living organisms, including humans, grow.
vitro fertility procedures many embryos are developed in order to produce
one viable foetus. Many of the surplus embryos are donated to science,
apparently with the informed consent of the donors (parents).
surplus embryos scientists isolate the inner cell mass and transplant it to a
plastic culture dish containing a nutrient broth known as the culture medium.
The culture dish has, up to now, typically been layered with embryonic mouse
cells, which are treated not to divide. This layer provides the human cells with
a surface to stick to, as well as releasing further nutrients into the culture
Over a period
of time the inner cell mass multiplies and begins to crowd the culture dish. At
this point the cells are divided into several fresh culture dishes. In this way
millions of stem cells are cultivated from the original 30 in as little as six
months. Left to themselves, the cells have the potential to spontaneously form
new (cloned) embryos.
working on "recipes" for controlling the development of stem cells
into specialised cells. This will enable cell-based therapy for conditions like
Parkinson's Disease. Parkinson's Disease is characterised by a degeneration and
loss of Dopamin (DA), which results in tremors, rigidity and hypokinesia
(abnormally decreased mobility). Scientists have found that, by introducing a
gene called Nurrl, stem cells can become DA generators which, when transplanted
into the brains of Parkinson's diseased mice, resulted in significantly improved
stem cells can also be harvested from adults, embryonic stem cells perform far
more efficiently in the lab. Embryonic stem cells can proliferate for a far
longer period of time than adult cells. Embryonic stem cells are also
pluripotent, which means that they have the potential to become any other type
of cell. Adult stem cells, while pliable to some degree, tend to become the
tissue in which they reside, e.g. stem cells residing in the bone marrow will
become bone marrow cells.
It is the use
of discarded embryos for harvesting stem cells, the potential for cloning
further embryos from these stem cells for further harvesting, and the
possibility of human cloning itself, that make stem cell research an ethical
into human cloning is banned in many countries, embryonic (and adult) stem cell
research that will enable human cloning, is not. In the United States the ban on
cloning research merely extends to the use of public funds, although this is up
for review at the next sitting of Congress.
As far as stem
cell research in particular is concerned, some countries (including the United
States and Germany) have banned the extraction of human embryonic stem cells.
Many of these countries do not, however, ban research involving the use
of embryonic stem cells harvested elsewhere and shipped to their shores.
has taken a conservative stance in this regard. The current draft of the
National Health Bill has ruffled the feathers of the local scientific community
with its proposed outright ban on both public as well as private research,
extracting or using embryonic stem cells.
has justified this stance by stating concern regarding the possible exploitation
of impoverished South African women, not only for local research purposes, but
also for harvesting stem cells for use in countries like Germany and the United
scientists argue that stem cell research is no different from any other
pharmaceutical research requiring human participation. They make the point that
any such research is subject to strict regulation and control, enabling
effective policing to prevent exploitation.
is also an economical argument for legalising this research. Scientists from
many countries that have taken a more conservative approach, including Germany
and the United States, are flocking to the United Kingdom, which has adopted a
very liberal stance with regards to stem cell and cloning research. With the
resulting influx of not only expertise, but also vast financial backing from the
pharmaceutical giants, the UK is set to pip the rest of the world to the stem
shown that you can't keep a good scientist down. The progress of scientific
research and discovery is, quite probably, impossible to stop. Where scientists
encounter strong opposition from prevailing social norms, researchers go
underground until such time that society becomes more accepting. Fearless of the
unknown in their own area of expertise, scientists will continue explore.
Should we, the general public and our governments, not be bolder ourselves? Does
opposition to stem cell research and human cloning not merely boil down to
the purely ethical side however, Dean Clancy, Executive Director of President
Bush's Council on Bioethics, poses the questions: "If regenerative medicine
turns out to be possible, but only by way of destroying human embryos (cloned or
uncloned), would it be morally appropriate or acceptable to use nascent human
life for this purpose? What do we owe to children? To infertile couples? To
patients? What do we owe to the embryo? To society? To ourselves?" Indeed,
would we be opening the door to eugenics, or possibly even degradation human
life? Would human reproduction become a streamlined manufacturing process? Would
men become superfluous? What about the personal identity of the clone? What
about family relations?
to Clonaid, more cloned babies are expected by early February this year. Their
website promises that some of these will go public. For Clonaid, the next step
is to clone fully grown adults, complete with transferred memories and
personality, thus ensuring eternal life on Earth.
may be easy to grin and shrug off Clonaid's goals as remote science fiction.
Equally however, their fiction is based in a very real science, the ethics of
which scientists and governments already grapple with. The time has come for the
thinking man to join in.