Human Stem Cells Created by “Therapeutic Cloning” – Assessing the Ethics

5/17/13    Advocates are quick to point out that stem cell research is about helping those who are living. This is not quite correct. Certainly adult stem cell research is about helping the living. Embryonic stem cell research, on the other hand, is about destroying some of the living, namely those who are still young and vulnerable as embryos, in the name of helping others who may be struggling with diseases. Recent research from the laboratory of Shoukhrat Mitalipov at Oregon Health & Science University involving the production of human embryos by nuclear transfer (a form of cloning) relies on this same immoral step of intentional human embryo destruction in the interest of achieving a therapeutic result.   Prior to this breakthrough, human embryonic stem cell research had largely sought to utilize abandoned embryos frozen in liquid nitrogen, “left over” from fertility treatments, to destructively obtain stem cells. The frozen embryo approach was plagued with a persistent difficulty, however. If Jane Doe were to request that a random embryo, stored in the freezer of a local fertility clinic, be destroyed to obtain stem cells to treat some ailment or disease she had, those cells, when introduced into her body, would be seen as foreign because they came from an embryo to which she was not genetically related, and they would be summarily rejected by her body.   “Therapeutic” cloning of the type reported by the Mitalipov laboratory purports to get around the rejection problem by producing a genetically related embryo, that is to say, an embryonic human clone who is a genetic identical twin of the treatment recipient. Starting from one of Jane’s body cells and an egg cell, this new embryonic twin sister would be grown for about 5 days of gestation in the laboratory before being destroyed to extract the desired stem cells.

Because identical twins can exchange kidneys and other organs without rejecting them, stem cells taken from the cloned embryo (the younger genetic twin) would not be rejected upon transplantation into Jane (the older twin). Yet producing our own twin brothers or sisters as embryos merely to harvest them for their desired cells – producing life simply to extinguish it – remains a gravely unethical and morally indefensible proposal. Twenty human eggs were used in the attempt to therapeutically clone a patient with Leigh syndrome in Mitalipov’s work, but only two of the cloned embryos ended up yielding stem cells. Numerous human embryos, produced for the explicit and premeditated purpose of their destruction, are typically required for the success of this technique.   We ought not sanction the creation of a subclass of human beings, comprised of those still in their embryonic or fetal stages, to be exploited by those fortunate enough to have already passed safely beyond those early and vulnerable stages. The research from the Mitalipov laboratory represents a turn in the wrong direction for the future of science, and needs to be repudiated as inherently unethical, even more so in light of the continual and impressive progress being made with morally acceptable alternatives such as induced pluripotent stem cells and various forms of adult stem cells.     Father Tad Pacholczyk