Saturday, December 31, 2005

"Human cloning was always a scientific roadshow" - Great article by Mark Henderson, science correspondent of The Times, agrees with everything that the anti-cloning lobby has been saying for years. Great. So can we ban cloning now?

After over a month of revelations that the media-described cloning "superstar", Woo Suk Hwang, from Korea had exploited a junior researcher to obtain human eggs and finally confirmation that he had in fact not cloned any embryos at all, ("BBC S Korea cloning research was fake (23/12/05)", Mark Henderson science correspondent of Times has written an article headlined " The retreat of the clones One scientist's fêted work has been discredited, but human cloning was always a scientific roadshow". Given the initial enthusiasm with which most of the media greeted Hwang's cloning announcement in May 2005 and obscured the arguments see BBC interviews cardiologist opposed to cloning but fails to ask him about adult stem cell success with cardiology (even though a careful reading of the scientific paper revealed that the clones would have the same diseases as the patients they were cloned from and therefore could not be used in treatment), this dismissal of cloning as scientifically flawed is something of an amazing but very welcome development. Finally the point that cloning is flawed is being given proper attention. Take just one example about the number of human eggs needed for so-called therapeutic cloning, Mark Henderson says in his article:

"Cloned embryos might be the ideal source of therapeutic stem cells, but they are not going to be a practical one for the foreseeable future. To create them, one must first have plenty of human eggs, and this raw material is in very short supply. Egg donation is complicated and risky for the donor, and there are insufficient quantities available to treat infertile couples, let alone to serve regenerative medicine. The idea there will be enough to treat Britain’s 120,000 Parkinson’s patients, let alone two million diabetics, with tailor-made clones is monumentally far-fetched."

I couldn’t agree more. That cloning is massively impractical and unlikely to work was an argument used by all the anti-cloning groups across the world repeatedly, including Student LifeNet which campaigned in 2000 against cloning legislation when I was in my final year at university drawing attention to the 101 reasons to oppose cloning including exploitation of women for eggs and calling for a proper debate and across the Atlantic, the American Senate heard testimony from a pro-abortion organisation who opposed cloning because of the exploitation of women.The facts for anyone who chose to listen are definitive as this cloning fact from Americans to Ban Cloning shows, Where Will They Get the Eggs? 12/03/02 :

“Let’s review the math. More than 100 million people in the United States suffer from medical conditions for which embryonic stem cell therapies are being promoted as promising – Parkinson’s disease, stroke, multiple sclerosis, spinal cord injuries, juvenile diabetes, and more…..it would take 800 million eggs just to treat just 16 percent of the Americans who suffer from conditions for which therapies involving cloned embryonic stem cells have been promised. If ten eggs are harvested per woman, then 80 million women of childbearing age would have to submit to the risks of drugs that induce hyper-ovulation and a surgical extraction procedure to provide the eggs that would be needed to develop therapies for just a fraction of those who are suffering from these conditions…. The “egg dearth” is a mathematic certainty. It is one reason why researchers say that therapeutic cloning will not be a generally available medical treatment. For example, a year ago biotech researchers Jon S. Odorico, Dan S. Kaufman, and James A. Thompson admitted the following in the research journal Stem Cells: “The poor availability of human oocytes (eggs), the low efficiency of the nuclear cell procedure, and the long population-doubling time of human ES cells make it difficult to envision this [therapeutic cloning to obtain stem cells] becoming a routine clinical procedure even if ethical considerations were not a significant point of contention.”

So where was the media’s reporting of these facts over the last five years? Mostly the media have overlooked the arguments. It has become normal to recite that prolife groups are opposed to cloning in quite a boring way. But the facts are so overwhelmingly against cloning that there has been some very good journalism too. In 2001, the editorial of the New Scientist described UK Ministers “like old records” out of touch with international scientific opinion in the same week as the UK Government rushed through the Human Reproductive Cloning Bill – November 2001 claiming that therapeutic cloning was necessary for medicine when the majority of bench scientists thought it was a waste of time. As the ProLife Alliance pointed out at the time in numerous press releases about their judicial review of the Government, and Cloning Remains Blockedwhat was needed was a proper and thorough debate of the facts, the kind of thing that should be standard when passing laws, nothing exceptional.

Instead, the Government rushed through loopy legislation purporting to ban cloning (live birth) while allowing the cloning of embryos still. If there had been a proper debate instead, everyone would have come to the conclusion that the New Scientist were aware of in 2001 and that Mark Henderson writes now in 2005, that cloning is “a scientific roadshow” and cures from cloning are “monumentally far-fetched”. There was no rush for cloning legislation in 2000. There was plenty of time for debate and reflection.

So Mark Henderson’s analysis is very welcome. Like the journalists who properly pursued the story that Hwang had exploited a junior researcher for eggs and fabricated all the results, the public depends on rigorous evidence based journalism to ensure that the claims of the biotech lobby are properly questioned and that scientists do not go beyond proper ethical boundaries. It is right that the public should know the truth about cloning because it involves the destruction of embryos, the dehumanising exploitation of women for eggs, and the massive waste of time and money that could be spent on further ethically unproblematic treatments using bone marrow and umbilical cord stem cells that is already proving promising but adult stem cell research needs funding that is being wasted on cloning. And if a scientist manages to get fraudulent work published in Science (which should never have happened in the first place) it is entirely proper that this work is publicly retracted. Credit too to the BBC for giving this proper top story coverage in order to correct the misleading impressions created by the overly pro-Korean cloning reports in May 2005.

But having agreed with Mark Henderson’s conclusion, it is curious that he arrives at exactly the same conclusion as the anti-cloning lobby, namely that cures from cloning is “monumentally farfetched” due to the need for vast numbers of eggs, while strangely attacking the anti-cloning lobby for holding this same view, saying that the revelations of scientific fraud and exploitation of a researcher for eggs has “played into the hands of the technology’s opponents” whereas in fact the explotation of women for eggs exists whether or not Hwang personally exploited a junior researcher as the United Nations stated in a declaration passed in February 2005.

Far from seizing on the international scandal of Hwang’s fraud, the anti-cloning lobby has always been very interested in the science of cloning and in the much more efficacious use of adult stem cells and non-embryonic stem cells, and this has been a main feature of opposition, simply that cloning does not work, so why destroy embryos pointlessly and exploit women and patients when perfectly good ethical alternatives exist? The ProLife Alliance has consistently and thoroughly put forward a comprehensive case against cloning as unethical and unnecessary and is currently backing a legal challenge against the first UK cloning licence on the grounds that it is unlawful (as research could be carried out without cloning).

Simplifying the anti-cloning case to simply opposition to the destruction of embryos, ignores the fact that there are 101 arguments (as Student LifeNet put it) against human cloning. The fact that it doesn’t work and is exploitative of women is a very good reason to ban it – these were key arguments last February when the United Nations passed a declaration against human cloning. The exploitation of women is such a serious point that if this was the only argument against cloning then cloning should be banned worldwide. Way back in February 2004, when the Koreans announcement that they had cloned an embryo, the ProLife Alliance said “'Not only does this technology abuse embryos but it also exploits women, exposing them to the risks of superovulatory drugs and using them as egg farms. We would all welcome the development of treatments for conditions, such as Parkinson's disease and Multiple Sclerosis and are greatly encouraged by the successful use of adult stem cells.'Leading stem-cell researchers, Dr Thomson, Professor Trounson and Thomas Okarma have all indicated that they are not optimistic about the future for therapeutic cloning because of the low efficiency of the procedures, risk of abnormalities and the fact that the product of an expensive and time-consuming procedure is only useful to the donor.'"

Henderson says for example that “Embryo rights activists who object not only to cloning but to any use of ES cells” .... but he doesn’t explain why we oppose the use of embryonic stem cells and fails to mention that embryonic stem cells have many scientific flaws including their tendency to cause cancerous tumours and be rejected as not compatible with the patient, whereas adult stem cells have already been used in treatment and are compatible with the patient from which the stem cells are taken – ie. Bone marrow to treat heart patients, nasal stem cells to treat spinal cord injury. (see CORE )

Henderson says the anti-cloning lobby have “seized on Hwang’s downfall to stir public doubts about the probity and potential of the entire field. If the stem cell emperor is clothed in nothing but hype and deception, they contend, shouldn’t this research be shut down? Does it really deserve the £520 million that Britain is being urged to invest over the next decade? This argument, however, rests on a pair of fallacies. Hwang’s reprehensible behaviour does not in any way justify ad hominem attacks on other scientists, such as Alison Murdoch, at the University of Newcastle upon Tyne, who are pursuing similar work. That one researcher has fabricated data does not mean that others are bound to do the same, and Britain’s strict embryo research rules provide strong safeguards that should prevent similar abuses here.”

Actually it is entirely legitimate to ask whether if Hwang was able to get away with it for so many months and even fooled the internationally renowned scientific journal Science, what about the cloning claims of UK researchers? Henderson doesn’t mention that in fact the Newcastle scientists were rebuked by the scientific journal Nature for rushing their results out on Reproductive Biomedicine Online without proper peer review. Neither does Henderson mention the legal case against the Newcastle cloning licence which is based on the lack of scientific detail in the cloning application. It is naïve to say that Britain has strict embryo research rules. We have the most destructive embryo research laws in the world! Thousands of embryos are destroyed each year, and licences are given for research by the HFEA which is an unaccountable quango.

But perhaps most objectionable of all is Henderson’s point that “critics are also exploiting a common misconception that therapeutic cloning and stem cell research are essentially the same thing.” I am not alone in being frustrated that the media as a whole lumps stem cell research altogether and doesn’t explain that we support adult stem cell research and non-embryonic stem cell sources like the placenta, amniotic fluid and umbilical cord blood whereas we oppose embryonic stem cell research and human cloning. Even a brief look at either CORE or Stemcellresearch.org shows that these organisations are meticulously accurate in discussing the exact source of stem cell.

For example on the 5th August, CORE issued a statement that “research published in the Journal of Stem Cells reveals that the placenta contains some 300 million amniotic epithelial cells which can be transformed into liver, heart, nerve and pancreatic cells to treat disease. Researchers from the University of Pittsburgh predict that if these cells were retained for research rather than discarded, they could easily be multiplied to between 10 billion and 60 billion cells to provide a limitless source of ethical cells to treat disease. ‘CORE has always advocated research on tissue obtained from ethical sources including the placenta,’ said a spokesperson for Comment on Reproductive Ethics. We are delighted that this research is gaining international recognition and serious funding in the United States with grants from the National Institute of Diabetes and Digestive and Kidney Diseases.’” These are cells that are being discarded in hospitals every day.

Ironically, nowhere in Henderson’s article does he mention that adult stem cells and umbilical cord sources of stem cells exist! It is the media that needs to be much more accurate when it discusses stem cell research.

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