Peter Singer & Abdallah Daar | Toronto | August 12
The Globe & Mail – Yesterday, scientists in the United Kingdom announced that they’d been granted permission by the Human Fertilization and Embryology Authority to create stem cells by therapeutic cloning. Now the U.K. is positioned to lead the world in translating the potential benefits of stem-cell research into patients. Canada should follow its lead and permit therapeutic cloning under strict regulation.
In therapeutic cloning, scientists take a human egg from a healthy donor, and remove its nucleus. They then take a cell — a skin cell, for example — from a patient, and remove its nucleus. They put the nucleus of the patient’s cell into the egg whose nucleus has been removed. The resulting cell then divides for about a week until it is a small clump of embryonic cells, from which stem cells are removed.
These stem cells are encouraged to become the type of cells needed (say, insulin cells) and then introduced into the patient (with, for example, diabetes). The key is that the DNA, the genetic material in those embryonic stem cells, comes from the patient, whose immune system won’t reject the stem cells.
Some argue that stem cells from adult tissue are just as good as embryonic stem cells, but without the ethical controversy. We think research using adult stem cells should be encouraged, but it’s too early to know whether human adult or embryonic cells will prove superior for treating patients.
Therapeutic cloning is different from reproductive cloning (as in the case of Dolly the sheep). The clump of embryonic cells in therapeutic cloning isn’t permitted to divide past 14 days, and it isn’t implanted in a female uterus. U.K. law permits therapeutic cloning, and established the Human Fertilization and Embryology Authority as the licensing mechanism to ensure that the technology is used by capable scientists and not abused. British law, like that in Canada and most countries, forbids reproductive cloning.
This week’s news puts the U.K. at the forefront of stem-cell research with South Korea (which recently announced the creation of human embryonic stem cells from therapeutic cloning). By contrast, Canada lags. We permit research on discarded human embryos from in-vitro fertilization clinics, but not the therapeutic cloning that would translate into benefits for patients. U.S. government regulation is even more restrictive, and limits research to a few cell lines.
Most informed observers believe that human embryonic stem cells hold tremendous potential for treating diseases such as diabetes, Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s and failed organs.
South Korea and the U.K. will soon be patenting discoveries in regenerative medicine and selling them. Although Canadians support therapeutic cloning, Ottawa won’t likely reopen its new reproductive law. Then, when patients elsewhere are successfully treated using therapeutic cloning, Canadians will beg Parliament to change our law — too late.
Doctors Peter Singer and Abdallah Daar are with the University of Toronto Joint Centre for Bioethics. Dr. Daar is also with the McLaughlin Centre for Molecular Medicine.