The Sacred Cell
"As to disease, make a habit of two things - to help, or at least do no harm." - Hippocrates
First Published in SunFlyer

According to 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. 

Who creates 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 grow.

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 muscle tissue.

It can be said that it is from stem cells that all living organisms, including humans, grow.

During in 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).

From these 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 medium.

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.

Scientists are 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 mobility.

While human 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 hotbed.

While research 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.

South Africa 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.

The government 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 States.

South African 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.

Clearly, there 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 cell post.

History has 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 misoneism?

On 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?

According 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.

It 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.