Ain’t science and politics grand! Straight after Victoria and New South Wales vote to legalise cloning, the vote becomes irrelevant. Just in time for the International Society for Stem Cell Research to hold its grand cloning conference in Cairns, this repulsive and unnecessary science is left as dead as Dolly.
New science has emerged this month which radically undermines the already spurious case for cloning: entirely ethical science that obtains the same “tailor-made” stem cells that cloning hopes to obtain, but without the creation and destruction of cloned embryos. Since June 7, 2007 the whole debate has been radically changed.
Now, as other state and territory parliaments are asked to replicate federal legislation allowing cloning, they must take into account new science that the feds knew nothing of.
Nature journal and Stem Cell journal, on June 7, published three papers confirming a simple method of turning mouse skin cells into genuine “pluripotent” stem cells - the functional equivalent of embryonic stem cells. These cells are the putative goal of “research cloning”, but here they are reached in a simpler, saner way.
“The race is now on to apply the surprisingly straightforward procedure to human cells”, writes the Nature commentary, entitled “Simple switch turns cells embryonic”.
"It's unbelievable, just amazing," says Hans Schöler (a stem-cell specialist at the Max Planck Institute for Molecular Biomedicine in Münster who is not involved with any of the three articles). "For me it's like Dolly [the first cloned mammal]. It's that type of accomplishment."
In a comment that sweeps away the whole ethical nightmare of creating cloned human embryos solely for research, and all the concerns about commercialising women’s eggs, Shinya Yamanaka of Kyoto University, who pioneered the new technique, says "Neither eggs nor embryos are necessary. I've never worked with either".
Headlines around the world asked if, at last, there was a way around the socially divisive science of cloning. Time magazine from June 14 said “because Yamanaka did not use human embryos, his technique offered researchers everywhere a way to sidestep the ethical controversies that have dogged the field since its birth”.
Yamanaka himself was at the Cairns conference this month to explain his technique. "It's easy. There's no trick, no magic," he says. Captains of the cloning industry listened anxiously, no doubt, for fear that their great pot of public money might be diverted away from cloning to such simple and uncontentious science.
For they will have read Harvard researcher Chad Cowan saying that this research will change the field. Writing in Science journal, June 8, he said: "The most amazing thing about these papers is you now take this whole idea of reprogramming out of the hands of cloning specialists and put it into the hands of anyone who can do molecular and cell biology."
And they may have read the response of a leading cloning company in the New York Times on June 7, whose CEO is up against the shortage of women’s eggs:
William M. Caldwell IV, chief executive of Advanced Cell Technology, said his company had not been able to obtain enough human eggs needed for therapeutic cloning. So the new approach, Mr Caldwell said, is “a technology that everyone should take a hard look at.”
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