By Hilary White
TORONTO, November 20, 2007 (LifeSiteNews.com) – While the news is full of glowing reports that Britain’s Dr. Ian Wilmut, the world’s leading cloning and stem cell researcher, has given up the project of cloning human embryos, some are dubious that his new methods are not just cloning by another name.
The Telegraph reported that Dr. Wilmut, famed for having created “Dolly” the cloned sheep in 1997, was giving up attempts to create human cloned embryos by the somatic cell nuclear transfer (SCNT) method.
“I decided a few weeks ago not to pursue nuclear transfer,” Prof. Wilmut told the Daily Telegraph November 16.
In SCNT, the method used to create Dolly and a number of other cloned mammals, the nucleus of an ovum is removed and replaced with the nucleus of a “somatic” or body cell such a skin cell. The transferred somatic cell nucleus contains the full complement of genes for the animal and the cell thus created can be induced to begin cell division as an embryo.
Wilmut told the Telegraph that he has decided not to pursue the licence to clone human embryos, which he was granted two years ago by the UK’s Human Fertilisation and Embryology Authority (HFEA). He said he would instead pursue a method pioneered by a team of Japanese scientists that they claimed was able to create embryonic stem cells without cloning embryos themselves.
The Telegraph reported that most of Wilmut’s motivation “is practical” but that he said the Japanese approach is also “easier to accept socially.”
The Japanese team, led by Dr. Shinya Yamanaka of Kyoto University, announced in July this year that they had developed a technique of creating “pluripotent” stem cells, those cells that can create many of the body’s tissues, from just a skin cell.
Yamanaka’s experiments used mouse skin cells, into which was introduced four proteins which “reprogram” the cell’s nuclear DNA making it pluripotent – having the same qualities as a stem cell taken from a very early-stage embryo. Yamanaka told the London Times in an interview, “Neither eggs nor embryos are necessary. I’ve never worked with either.”
Some fear, however, that the possibility exists that the Japanese research did or could result in the creation of embryos.
Dr. John Shea, medical consultant for Canada’s Campaign Life Coalition told LifeSiteNews.com that he had “some concerns” about the ethics of Yamanaka’s work and that further study of his progress was needed.
“Yamanaka’s work,” Dr. Shea said, “essentially somatic cell genetic engineering, is a very complex subject.”
The issue, said Shea, is whether the pluripotent stem cells created by the technique will always remain merely stem cells and cannot become embryos.
Shea said it is at least theoretically possible that the proteins being introduced to the cell to “reprogram” its genes, “may produce totipotent ‘stem cells’ that could, at least in theory, become human embryos” by a chemical process called “regulation”.
“Yamanaka’s methods might produce not just stem cells, but embryos that would be killed, as they are in IVF [in vitro fertilisation], to derive ‘stem cells.’”
The ethical onus remains he said, with the researchers proposing to do the work to ensure that what is being created is not and cannot become an embryo. “Unless he can prove that they cannot become embryos I think that the same rule applies as does in the case of cells separated from an embryo that may themselves become embryos. So yes…..if it can be cloning, morally it is the same thing as cloning.”
All cloning of embryos is cloning, Shea said, “but, of course, not all cloning is due to nuclear transfer.”
LifeSiteNews is further investigating the Wilmut development although open to the possibility that Wilmut’s announcement is indeed good news for the protection of human life.
Read related LifeSiteNews.com coverage:
Dolly the Sheep Cloner Now Wants to Clone Humans
From Unthinkable to Morally Imperative: Dolly Cloner Flip Flops on Human Cloning
UK Cloning Doctor Wants to Create Human/Rabbit Hybrid Clones