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Let the Cloning Begin! January 23, 2009

Posted by Nina Rosenstand in Culture, Current Events, Nina Rosenstand's Posts, Science.
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Here we go! Welcome to the Spring 2009 semester. Lots of topics to talk about.

Today’s news (from BBC News, hence the British spelling):

US regulators have cleared the way for the world’s first study on human embryonic stem cell therapy.

Geron Corp, the biotech company behind the research, plans to initiate a clinical trial in patients paralysed due to spinal cord injury.

The move comes three days after the inauguration of President Barack Obama who has been a strong supporter of embryonic stem cell research.

Since 2001 there have been limits on federal funding for stem cells.

 As most of you have probably been aware of, President Bush (while not opposed to stem cell research as such, and thus more moderate than some conservative supporters) vetoed federal funding for research into stem cells for therapeutic cloning, other than a small number of existing stem cell lines. As reported by the San Diego Union Tribune, California, with its stem cell research industry at the forefront of global research, but hindered by having to seek private funding, may now look forward to a very productive future:

Robert Klein, the stem cell institute’s chairman, and scientists around the state say they’re optimistic about the changes that will occur when Obama follows through on his pledge to work with Congress and lighten funding restrictions that President George W. Bush placed on human embryonic stem cell research in August 2001.

“The federal restrictions created artificial barriers and walls to research based on moral and religious beliefs, and not scientific merit,” said David Gollaher, president of the California Healthcare Institute. “What lifting the ban does is make embryonic stem cell research mainstream.”

And the prospect of helping paralyzed patients regain control of their limbs and their lives is creating excitement among researchers:

 Geron Corporation, a company based in Menlo Park, California, hopes to mend the spines of patients paralysed from the chest down by injecting injury sites with stem cells that restore connections and repair damage.

“This marks the beginning of what is potentially a new chapter in medical therapeutics, one that reaches beyond pills to a new level of healing: the restoration of organ and tissue function achieved by the injection of healthy replacement cells,” said the company’s president, Tom Okarma.

Does this mean we have resolved the ethical questions of cloning? No, it means that one philosophical viewpoint is now in the process of replacing another, at the legislative level: We’re still talking about cloning embryonic stem cells (at least in this context) , and embryos will still have to be destroyed in order to create therapeutic stem cells. For those who consider embryos as live humans in need of legislative protection, this is a huge moral setback, akin to Roe v. Wade, allowing the intentional killing of human beings. For many others who believe that at this early embryonic stage (between the first and second week of gestation, if I understand it correctly) we’re not yet talking about an actual person, this is a significant step forward, scientifically as well as morally, since it will save human lives. What we have resolved, and shouldn’t have to rehash, is the difference between therapeutic and reproductive cloning. In therapeutic cloning the stem cells will be used to cure illnesses and replace tissue and organs etc.; reproductive cloning entails the creation of a new, genetically identical individual from the cells of another, and the ethical controversy inherent in that kind of cloning, when applied to humans, is still enormous, and still at the level of sci-fi.

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