May 29, 2024

Forget about therapies, says stem cell researcher

The cost of “therapeutic” cloning will be too high to cure patients, says Alan Trounson, one of the world’s leading stem cell researchers. But cloning will be needed for research on the genetic component of disease. “I don’t call it therapeutic cloning because it’s not about cells for therapy,” said Professor Trounson, of Monash University. “This is about cells that give us an opportunity to discover what causes a disease and whether we can interfere with that. These cells should only be used for research.”

Professor Trounson, a central figure in Australia’s debate about embryonic stem cell research, believes that generating stem cells as tailor-made therapies for diseases like diabetes or Parkinson’s will be prohibitively expensive. “The cost of it is going to be massive,” he says. “The overall cost and effort is probably beyond the system.” His remarks are a bucket of cold water over the media hype last month following South Korean researcher Woo-Suk Hwang’s announcement that he had created therapeutic clones. They may also have implications for research elsewhere, as Trounson is one of the experts assessing grants for California’s ambitious stem cell program.

However, he still believes that it will be necessary to create clones to obtain “disease-specific cells”. Since scarcity of human eggs limits researchers’ options, he favours the creation of hybrid embryos using rabbit eggs. “Any so-called embryos produced in that way have no developmental competence at all,” he says. “They can’t develop into any kind of organised embryo whatsoever, but they can produce embryonic stem cell lines that might be useful for research.”

Professor Trounson’s remarks come as Australia gears up for its own debate over embryo research. Under a 2002 law, scientists are allowed to use “surplus” IVF embryos, but are forbidden to do cloning of any kind. The Federal Government will soon review the legislation before deciding whether the law should be relaxed. As the deadline approaches, the topic is surfacing more often in the media. The utilitarian bioethicist Julian Savulescu, an Australian who teaches at Oxford, argued forcefully in the Weekend Australian that cloning embryos would be “vastly more beneficial to humanity” than splitting the atom. “It may surpass the discovery of X-rays and penicillin,” he wrote. It was a claim oddly out of synch with Professor Trounson’s scepticism.