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Human stem cell cloning: 'Holy Grail' or techno-fantasy?

By David King, Special to CNN
May 17, 2013 -- Updated 1440 GMT (2240 HKT)
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • Scientists in Oregon say they've successfully cloned human stem cells for first time
  • Advocates of human stem cell cloning say the development will save lives
  • King says there is little scientific substance to the purported benefits of therapeutic cloning
  • King: Scientists are irresponsible to publish research before global ban on cloning

Editor's note: David King has a PhD in molecular biology and is the director of Human Genetics Alert, an independent watchdog group. He focuses on the ethical and social issues raised by genetics.

(CNN) -- Today was a strange day. I'm used to handling the brief but overwhelming burst of media attention that comes with new stories about medical breakthroughs and ethical issues. But I don't often get an accompanying deluge of passionate e-mails and phone calls from people who had read my comments, denouncing me for criticizing science, especially medical research that "can save millions of lives."

There is definitely something special about this idea of "therapeutic cloning," something that has a religious feel to it. Most of those messages come from people who have family members suffering from some of the diseases that we are told will be cured, and it's hard to have to pour cold water on people's hopes.

TIME: Scientists clone human stem cells

David King
David King

I feel really angry at the scientists and PR people who have sold the idea of cloned human stem cells to so many patient support groups, when there is so little scientific substance to their promises. We are told that there will be great medical benefits and that the risks that there will be cloned babies are small, but in truth it's the other way round.

Let's deal with the cloned babies issue first. Ordinary people know perfectly well why human cloning is wrong, and that's why governments around the world, including all developed nations except the USA have banned it. But there are plenty of desperate people and egoistic tycoons wanting to be cloned, and plenty of unscrupulous IVF doctors happy to relieve them of their cash. And there are still countries where those doctors can go to evade legal sanctions.

What the Oregon scientists have done is to deliver the baby that the would-be human cloners have been waiting for 15 years -- what looks like a reliable technique for creating cloned embryos. I think it was irresponsible to publish their research before there is a comprehensive global ban on cloning, with tough sanctions.

But I think what makes me even angrier as a scientist is the hype and false promises around therapeutic cloning. Let's be clear: this is not about embryonic stem cell research, which, despite the hype may deliver something given time, although the alternatives of adult stem cells and induced pluripotent stem cells look set to deliver results much quicker. And I'm not a pro-lifer; destruction of embryos is not what bothers me.

The cloning element is there purely for the purposes of creating tissues genetically identical to the patient that won't be rejected, and that's a nice idea. The trouble is it brings a whole raft of biological problems with it that create major risks to the patient as well as creating an impossibly expensive process.

With cloning, you are forcing nature to do something that it does not want to, so the new risks are to be expected. Cloning creates abnormalities in the genetic read-out, which is the reason that cloned animals are so often sick. Those errors will be there in any stem cells and tissues produced by cloning. Those problems are another reason why cloning babies would be hugely unethical, but they don't necessarily make it impossible.

Finally, even if you could somehow solve these problems, the use of genetically matched tissues in mainstream medicine is simply not feasible and, unlike electronic gadgets, medical costs go up, not down.

In addition to the extremely expensive process of cloning, for each patient you have to culture stem cells and reliably turn them into the tissue you want with 100% efficiency, so you don't get a single left over stem cell that will cause tumors. You have to do all that to a standard of accuracy that will satisfy government regulators and medical liability lawyers when something goes wrong. Forget it. We don't do anything remotely approaching this in medicine and it doesn't look like medical budgets are growing, does it? There are other much better solutions to the tissue rejection problem that will cost a fraction of the price.

The fact is that the cloning paper published on Wednesday is zombie science. Therapeutic cloning was dead and buried years ago, but it just seems to keep on going, and so do people's hopes. There is definitely something weird here, something that brings out religious terminology like "the Holy Grail of medicine" around therapeutic cloning. That's because therapeutic cloning is a fantasy, one that belongs to the modern religion, the religion of technocracy. That's the only way I can explain how scientists who ought to know better seem to get drunk on their power over nature and keep pursuing this absurd dream.

People often say to me that scientists pursuing therapeutic cloning are "just trying to make money," but the truth is worse. Driven by their technocratic ideology, they betray their own credo of sticking to the facts, and that's bad enough. But to keep raising people's hopes in this way is really unforgivable.

The opinions expressed in this piece are solely those of David King.

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