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Thursday May 16
The news today of the breakthrough in human cloning technology announced by a group in the US has prompted many to ask just this question.
At the centre of this story is the quest for what are called “stem cells”. These are cells which have the ability to transform into the different cell types which make up our bodies (eg nerve cells, blood cells, etc). These calls have huge potential in future medical treatments. However, as one source of stem cells has been the early human embryo, this research has also generated significant controversy.
When it considered the issue of stem cells in 2006, the General Assembly of the Church of Scotland recognised the potential promise held out by therapies involving stem cells, but urged the scientific community to seek sources other than human embryos for these stem cells. It opposes the creation of human embryos specifically for research purposes- which is exactly what this latest research does.
The technique developed by Prof Mitalipov and his team is based around the technology which Prof Ian Wilmut in Edinburgh used to produce Dolly, the first cloned mammal, in 1996. This involves transferring the genetic material from an adult cell into an egg which has had the genetic material removed. Prof Mitalipov has developed the resultant embryos for 14 days, and then destroyed them in order to harvest the stem cells found inside the embryo.
The Church feels there is also further cause for concern. Commentators have made it clear that deriving stem cells is the goal in these experiments- the embryos are destroyed at an early developmental stage, and it isn’t the intention of this work to implant the embryos into a mother and to allow them to develop further. However, it appears that it would be THEORETICALLY possible to use this technique to bring about what is termed 'reproductive cloning' of humans - producing a fully developed exact genetic replica, as was done with Dolly, and has subsequently been done with many other mammals.
The Church acknowledges that real benefits could be gained from stem cell research, but seeks to encourage research into stem cells derived from sources other than human embryos.
Could we reproductively clone a human? This work brings that technically a step closer - though past experience with reproductive cloning of mammals would suggest that wouldn’t be straightforward.
Should we do so? The Church - along with many legislatures, including the UK - would say a firm 'no'.
For over 40 years, the Society, Religion and Technology (SRT) Project of the Church of Scotland has sought to bring an ethical reflection to issues of science and technology. For further information please see www.srtp.org.uk or email email@example.com
Dr Murdo Macdonald is the policy officer of the SRT Project.
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