Crossing Ethical Borders: Human Cloning Marches On, Without U.S. Help

February 15, 2004

By NICHOLAS WADE

THE production of the first human cloned embryo in Seoul last week marked a fine achievement for South Korean scientists. But it underlines the price the United States may pay for its unresolved debate over human embryonic stem cells: if American researchers lose their technical lead, Washington will also forfeit the chance to set the ethical rules of the game.

This outcome contrasts with the last big ethical issue posed by new biological research, the invention in 1975 of recombinant DNA, the first technique to let researchers move genes from one organism to another. On that occasion, after a fierce and often bitter discussion, biomedical researchers were allowed to go ahead with the new technique under rules drawn up by their patron agency, the National Institutes of Health.

Because of the open political process by which the N.I.H. rules were shaped, their moral authority extended far beyond their legal reach; these or similar regulations were observed by private industry and by most other countries where the research was being done.

Washington has chosen a different path with human embryonic stem cells, one based on a political compromise announced by President Bush in August 2001. The deal was constructive and artful. It allowed research with human embryonic cells to begin at last, though only with cell lines created before that date; researchers are not allowed to create new ones. But last week's announcement in Seoul highlighted the limits of the American approach. The rest of the world is not standing still, and deriving new cell lines is an important part of progress.

"By this policy we are ceding leadership in what may be one of the most important medical advances for the next 10 to 15 years," said Dr. Irving Weissman, a stem cell researcher at Stanford University. He also expressed disappointment that the Korean advance could not have been made in the United States. "That's a very telling lesson for us,'' he said. "It says we are going to watch it happen."

Not everyone has such high regard for the new technology. Dr. Leon Kass, chairman of the President's Council on Bioethics, has been warning for years of the dangers of human cloning. As if to fulfill his worst forebodings, last week's announcement came on his 65th birthday. Dr. Kass declined to comment on the event, saying he didn't want to sound like a broken record. But in his previous writings, and in a 2002 report on cloning by the council, he made plain his conviction that society should not hesitate to curb scientists when they trespass on life's central mysteries.

In that report, a majority of the council, joined by its chairman, proposed a four-year moratorium on therapeutic >cloning - the production of cloned human embryos to generate cells to repair a patient's diseased tissues - and an outright ban on the reproductive cloning that is made possible by the same technique.

Advances in reproductive technology often create enormous furor because they seem to touch the essence of human existence. The first test-tube baby, born in 1978, produced an outcry about the ethics of the technique involved. But the great gift to infertile families - fertility clinics in the United States alone have now created more than 100,000 babies - soon outweighed the forebodings of disaster.

The ability to clone human embryos could follow a similar path from horror to humdrum, if it produces similar benefits. It is not unknown for scientists to overpromise, whether to secure funds or discourage opposition, and it is far from certain that therapeutic cloning will work as hoped. Still, the possibility of tapping the cell's ability to regenerate the body's tissues is hard to ignore.

The Korean scientists, if their experiment is confirmed in other laboratories, will have proved, in principle, the viability of the first step in therapeutic cloning, that of converting an ordinary body cell back into the embryonic state. But one element in their success is simply that they were able to amass enough human eggs to get the standard techniques to work, and had no legal restrictions standing in their way.

So far the technique works only for women. The researchers used a nucleus from a particular type of female body cell known as a cumulus cell, which surrounds the egg. Cumulus cells have proved particularly suitable for nuclear transfer in animals.

If therapeutic cloning is the researchers' only goal, why is the procedure controversial? One reason is that its hole basis has been attacked by the anti-abortion movement on the grounds that dissecting a blastocyst is tantamount to killing a person.

Large numbers of surplus blastocysts are routinely generated in fertility clinics, and the merest handful of these have provided all the stem cells used in research. But white-coated scientists make a better political target than infertile couples desperately seeking to produce a baby.

Politics aside, Dr. Kass and many other ethicists feel strongly that medical progress is not an absolute good that should be allowed to override all other values, like the natural limits on human life and the cycle of generations. Others share Dr. Kass's unease, if not necessarily all his specific arguments.

If scientists can show that therapeutic cloning saves lives, they will doubtless be able to quell such doubts. President Bush's compromise of 2001 gave them a chance to do so, but the Seoul experiment shows that the United States is no longer the only player in the game and could soon lose the chance to set rules for the rest of the world.