Three kinds of failures are guaranteed a berth on
the front page of even the most sober newspapers at the moment: Britney Spears and
relationships, Barry Bonds and drugs, and scientists and cloning.
There's something irresistible about talented people on the skids. And of the three, cloning is by far the saddest story.
First, the good news. A few days ago it was announced that researchers at
Oregon Health and Science University in Portland have successfully
cloned primate embryos and used them to make embryonic stem-cell
lines. Until a Korean cloned human embryos back in 2004, the
difficulties seemed almost insurmountable. But that turned out to be
a calculated fraud. Disheartened stem cell researchers once again
fretted that human cloning to cure dread diseases might actually be impossible.
Shoukhrat Mitalipov and his colleages merged skin
cells from a nine-year-old rhesus macaque male with unfertilized
monkey eggs whose DNA had been removed. It was far from an efficient
process. After tweaking conventional cloning techniques, they
produced only two embryonic stem-cell lines from 304 eggs. But at
least it wasn't a fraud.
Stem cell scientists greeted the news
ecstatically. "Like breaking the sound barrier", says
Robert Lanza, with Advanced Cell Technology in Los Angeles. Even
serious newspapers like the London Times sprinkled stardust on the
results: "First cloning of monkey embryo raises hope of a great
leap in medical science".
the bad news. The scientist who cloned Dolly, Ian Wilmut, the world's most
prominent expert in cloning, has abandoned his plans to clone human
embryos. He believes that an "extremely exciting and
astonishing" Japanese method of creating stem cells is more effective and carried no ethical baggage. "His announcement could mark the beginning of the end for
therapeutic cloning," says the London Daily Telegraph.
This confirms what critics have been saying for years. What's baffling about the pubic infatuation with
embryonic stem cells, which are obtained by dissecting and killing
early stage embryos, is that they have not cured anyone or been useful for anything.
A very thorough summary of current research into
therapeutic cloning was presented to the German
Parliament (the Bundestag) earlier this year. In it Dr Lukas Kenner, of
the Ludwig Boltzmann Institute for Cancer Research in Vienna, reminded
the German government that only a single experimental study has
demonstrated that therapeutic cloning is possible, at least in mice.
However, to the surprise of the researchers, the cloned cells were
incompatible with the patient's immune system. That was in 2002,
and in the five ensuing years, no one, not even the original authors,
animal experimental evidence of the core hypothesis of the
feasibility of immunocompatible 'therapeutic cloning'
that overcomes the hurdle of immune rejection".
Of course, maybe someday embryonic stem cells will eventually work as a
scientific tool. But only dazzled
journalists, a few starry-eyed scientists and a lot of vote-hungry
politicians are prepared to invest money in a maybe — other people's
money, that is. Earlier this month Governor Jon Corzine and other
politicians lobbied hard to persuade New Jersey voters to authorise
spending US$450 million on stem cell research. The voters snubbed them.
Mr Corzine now wants pharmaceutical companies to step up to the plate.
The hoopla over monkey cloning shows the
enormous pressure on scientists to wring good news out of the tiniest
advances. In this hyper-competitive atmosphere, some are
bound to exaggerate or even fake their results. This has already
happened — and not just in Korea. Last year it was discovered that a
scientist at the University of Missouri-Columbia, had digitally
altered images of mouse embryos in an article in the
leading journal Science.
The California Institute for Regenerative
Medicine, which has the world's biggest stem cell budget — US$3
billion over 10 years, mostly for embryonic stem cells — has
already had problems with two of its grants.
And this week a long investigation at the Monash
University in Melbourne, Australia, concluded that a senior stem cell
scientist had been negligent and had presented inaccurate research
results. His project was adult stem cells and lung
The significance of this event is that the hapless fellow's supervisor was the newly appointed head of the California Institute,
Professor Alan Trounson. The Monash vice-chancellor found that
Trounson himself had been negligent in approving the results without
examining them — although, it must be stressed, he was not personally
If Professor Trounson cannot supervise a $1
million grant properly, how will he manage with $3 billion sloshing
around in the trough? The California funds are so immense that some
scientists worry that too much money might be chasing too few
high-quality research projects. "We have to have very discerning
review boards so it doesn't become a boondoggle for companies that
haven't succeeded," Dr
Irving Weissman, a prominent
stem cell researcher at Stanford University, has said. Furthermore,
only Californian scientists will be allowed to paddle in this sea of
money, so the number of qualified researchers is relatively small.
Too much hype. Too many daydreams. Too much
taxpayers' money. Too few researchers. Too little supervision. It's the kind of
brew that rogues and rascals thrive on. We can expect more stem
cell scandals in the years to come unless scientists follow Ian Wilmut's lead and abandon therapeutic cloning.
Michael Cook is editor of MercatorNet. He also edits BioEdge, a bioethics newsletter.