February 24, 2024


A stem cell scientist from Massachusetts Institute of Technology visiting Australia last week made a vigorous attack upon the science and ethics of therapeutic cloning. Associate Professor James Sherley spoke with several MPs ahead of a vote in Canberra about legalising cloning. He minced no words: "adult stem cell research is a viable and vibrant path to new medical therapies. Even calling them an alternative to embryonic stem cells misinforms the public. Why? Because embryonic stem cells provide no path at all."

Although Sherley also regards human embryos as human beings, with a right not to be experimented upon, he supported his ethical concerns with scientific arguments. First, if cloned animals notoriously have serious birth defects, cloned embryos must also have them, making tissues derived from them dangerous and ineffective.

Second, cloned embryonic stem cells normally form tumours when transplanted into adult tissues. Third, the continuous renewal and repair of tissue is the work of adult stem cells. Embryonic stem cells might be able to replace adult tissues, but they will not replace the adult stem cells.

Even the proposal to use cloned human embryos to investigate adult disease mechanisms has no scientific legs. The worth of such studies will be limited by the inherent genetic defects in cloned embryos and, fundamentally, diseases that arise in the adult are not likely to manifest until later in embryonic development, if at all before birth," he wrote in the Australian newspaper.

As the vote on the issue approaches, parliamentarians are being intensely lobbied and lectured by both sides of the debate. The result is still too early to call. However, the premier of the state of Victoria, Steve Bracks, has already vowed to legislate for therapeutic cloning, even if research in his state would not be eligible for Federal funding. Victoria is home to half of Australia’s biotech industry, and Bracks fears a brain drain unless scientists get what they want.