The bulk of the debate over human cloning has, to date, taken place on the East Coast in places like Massachusetts, Pennsylvania and Washington, D.C. As of Friday, California is taking its turn.
After obtaining hundreds of pages of research-related documents from UC San Francisco through the California Public Records Act, The Wall Street Journal published an investigative report on Friday detailing the university’s attempts to clone human embryos for stem cell research between 1999 and 2001. The vice dean for research at UCSF, Keith Yamamoto, confirmed the university’s involvement in cloning research, making UCSF the first major university and first public institution in the United States to admit to conducting such experiments.
Yamamoto said UCSF never intended to be secretive about the research. Rather, the university was adhering to standard academic practice, wherein experimental results are not discussed until they appear in a peer-reviewed academic journal.
As of 1997, it is illegal to use federal funds for human-cloning research. The research at UCSF was funded in part by a private biotech firm, Geron Corp., but research money coming from the university had to be carefully tracked to ensure it did not originate from any federal source. This proved to be a complicated process and contributed to the cessation of cloning research at UCSF last year.
According to Yamamoto, the research never produced any results worthy of publication and stopped after the lead researcher, geneticist Roger Pedersen, left the country to take a position at Cambridge University in England.
Whether or not Pedersen left the United States in response to Congress’ increasing regulation of stem cell and cloning research has been the subject of some debate. The United Kingdom currently has the most liberal policies of any western country in both of these areas. Pedersen issued a statement that he has not continued his cloning research in Britain and has no plans to do so in the near future.
Yamamoto said scientists who worked on the project with Pedersen are free to continue the research if they choose, but other would-be cloning researchers at UCSF must still receive bioethics approval and human-subjects approval from the university.
The U.S. Senate is currently debating a human cloning ban. Two bills are under consideration, one that would ban cloning for reproductive purposes and another that would ban all cloning research.
Cloning, or somatic cell nuclear transfer, is a process in which the nucleus of an adult cell, containing a person’s genetic material, is injected into a female’s egg, which has had its own nucleus removed. The egg is then stimulated electrically and chemically in the laboratory until it begins to divide like a normal embryo. This embryo is genetically identical to the donor of the nucleus and is therefore a clone. The process has been unsuccessful in humans so far and the most advanced attempts to date have resulted in embryos that died within hours of their creation.
Although the number of human eggs used in experiments at UCSF was not released, according to The Wall Street Journal, Pedersen’s original research proposal examined the possibility of using as many as 1,000 eggs each year.
Most scientists consider human reproductive cloning – cloning embryos for the purpose of impregnating women and producing children – to be unethical. But medical researchers are still enthusiastic about therapeutic cloning – cloning embryos to produce stem cells.
In therapeutic cloning, a human embryo is allowed to divide in the laboratory until it reaches the stage where stem cells can be retrieved from it. Stem cells are nonspecific in their function and can be induced, under the right conditions, to become cells for any organ in the human body.
Many medical practitioners have reason to hope that stem cells could provide cures for a wide range of ailments, including Parkinson’s disease, Alzheimer’s disease, spinal cord injuries and heart disease. Cloned stem cells may be necessary for treatment because they are genetically identical to the patient, potentially eliminating the possibility of organ rejection.
Many still find therapeutic cloning ethically unacceptable because embryos are destroyed in the process. Others are opposed to the widespread use of such procedures because they believe women could be exploited for their eggs.