Ban reproductive cloning not stem cell research

In Minnesota, legislation has been introduced that would essentially ban forms of basic stem cell research by defining nuclear transfer as “human cloning.”

Just to get one thing perfectly clear: CIRM plays a leadership role in opposing human reproductive cloning. The California constitution, CIRM regulations and all other states that are actively supporting stem cell research expressly prohibit human reproductive cloning.

This seems like a good time to define some terms. First, human cloning. Here’s a definition fromĀ  California Law:

“Human reproductive cloning” means the practice of creating or attempting to create a human being by transferring the nucleus from a human cell into an egg cell from which the nucleus has been removed for the purpose of implanting the resulting product in a uterus to initiate a pregnancy.

Now nuclear transfer, which is the basic stem cell research that would be banned under the Minnesota legislation. Keep in mind that this technique has been successful in a wide range of animals including primates, but has yet to be successful in humans. This is from CIRM’s Stem Cell Basics:

Nuclear transfer is a technique to create embryonic stem cells that are genetically identical to a person’s own cells. This technique is also known as therapeutic cloning because it essentially clones a person’s cell to be used in a therapy.

The process of nuclear transfer involves removing the genetic material from an egg, then injecting the genetic material from an adult person’s cell into the egg. Researchers then stimulate the egg to begin maturing. About five days later the egg develops into a hollow ball of about 150 cells called a blastocyst. This is the same type of blastocyst that would be used to create cell lines from donated IVF embryos. Researchers remove the inner cell mass from the blastocyst and grow those cells in a lab dish to create a new embryonic stem cell line.

What the two have in common is that they both start by injecting a nucleus into an egg and allowing that egg to begin dividing. Where they differ is in intent. People attempting to carry out nuclear transfer intend to develop stem cell lines for therapies, which is why the technique has also been called therapeutic cloning. CIRM held a workshop on nuclear transfer and produced this report based on the finding.

I talked to my colleague Geoff Lomax, who heads CIRM’s Standards Working Group, about the Minnesota legislation. He directed me to this New York Times opinion piece from 2006 written by Michael Gazzaniga who was a member of the President’s Council on Bioethics under President Bush:

We voted unanimously to ban reproductive cloning – the kind of cloning that seeks to replicate a human being. We cited many reasons, from biomedical risk to religious concerns to the flat-out weirdness of the idea. But in fact human cloning has not been attempted, nor is it in the works; so it’s a theoretical ban in the first place, like banning marriage between robots.

That pretty much sums up CIRM’s ban, too. It’s not even possible so the ban is purely theoretically, but if it were possible we’d still be against it. Geoff made the point that legitimate science such as genetic research is often the basis for science fiction:

I am still struck by how often the movie GATTACA comes up in discussion about DNA research. The lens of popular culture has a profound impact on our collective psyche.

We didn’t ban genetic research, which has brought us a multitude of new drugs and therapies, just because Ethan Hawke met with genetic discrimination in a movie. We did, however, pass the Genetic Non-Discrimination Act to prevent such a scenario. By the same logic, we shouldn’t ban basic research due to unwarranted science fiction concerns over reproductive cloning.