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Edging our Way Toward a Human Clone

by  Bert Thompson, Ph.D.
Brad Harrub, Ph.D.

South Korean researchers have brought us one step closer to the reality of a human clone. Woo Suk Hwang (of the College of Veterinary Medicine at Seoul National University) and his colleagues have produced the most advanced human embryonic clones to date. BBC News headlines confirmed: “Scientists clone 30 human embryos” (Amos, 2004). Not only did the group succeed in creating 30 human embryo clones, but they also allowed the developing embryos to progress to an advanced stage. The team allowed the embryos to grow for a week to the blastocyst stage, and then purposefully destroyed every single one in order to obtain the stem cells inside.

The researchers collected 242 eggs from 16 volunteers. From those oocytes, 176 then were used in the somatic-cell nuclear transfer procedure (Hwang, et al., 2004). Thirty embryos resulted from their nuclear transfer techniques. Researchers speculated they “were able to obtain ~25% of the embryos to the blastocyst stage” (p. 2). The presence of a blastocyst indicates that the embryo has advanced far enough that two cell types are now forming: the embryoblast (inner cell mass on the inside of the blastocele), and the trophoblast (the cells on the outside of the blastocele). From the 30 blastocysts, 20 inner-cell masses (ICM) containing the desired stem cells were isolated, and one embryonic stem-cell line was derived.

In layman’s terms, the researchers took about 250 egg cells from human females by over-stimulating their ovaries. The “insides” of the egg were removed. The scientists then took a non-reproductive (somatic) cell containing the woman’s genetic material (DNA), and “transferred” it into the empty egg cell (“nuclear transfer” is the scientific term for cloning). In order to get the egg to begin dividing, they activated it with an artificial stimulus (i.e., chemical, physical, or mechanical agents). The egg then began dividing like a normally fertilized egg cell. Once it reached the blastocyst stage, the inner cell mass containing the stem cells was removed, using microsurgical techniques.

One key problem with this study is that Hwang and his colleagues used egg cells and somatic cells from the same person. As such, it is impossible to prove that the embryos developed from the non-reproductive somatic cell nucleus, rather than genetic material from the egg cell that was not completely removed. Nevertheless, this report, arriving just a few days before the American Association for the Advancement of Science annual convention, likely will reinvigorate the idea of “therapeutic cloning.” The authors concluded in their report: “This study shows the feasibility of generating human embryonic stem cells from a somatic cell isolated from a living person” (p. 3).

While the procedure may now be “feasible,” it remains ethically despicable. The authors pointed out the potential benefit of such research, and offered it as a therapeutic tool to treat various disorders. But just because we can do something, and just because it may offer some possible benefit in the future, does not mean we should do it. The United States government has established clear guidelines that are supposed to be followed anytime experiments are carried out on humans. Did we get informed consent from those 30 embryos before we destroyed them and robbed them of their stem cells? Was the experiment performed to the embryos’ benefit? If not, then such experimentation should not be allowed. Is it not sad that the commands regarding the sanctity of life from the Creator of life have been all but forgotten in this “Brave New World”?

REFERENCES

Amos, Jonathan (2004), “Scientists Clone 30 Human Embryos,” BBC News, [On-line], URL: http://news.bbc.co.uk/2/hi/science/nature/3480921.st.

Hwang, Woo Suk, Young June Ryo, Jong Hyuk Park, Eul Soon Park, et al., (2004), “Evidence of a Pluripotent Human Embryonic Stem Cell Line Derived from a Cloned Blastocyst,” Scienceexpress, [On-line], URL: http://sciencenow.sciencemag.org/cgi/content/full/2004/211/1.




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