How to keep science honest

An apparent breakthrough in embryonic stem cell research has raised all the old ethical questions about cloning, along with three new ones, writes Laurie Zoloth.


The single most important question that needs to be asked about new science is not “how cool is that?” or even “won’t this change everything?”, but: “Does this science create a good and just world?”

It is a moral philosopher’s job to think aloud about these questions, to watch big, new science from a front-row seat and bring questions of philosophy, religious studies and humanities into the most interesting debates of our time, to ask not “Can we?” but “Should we?”.

Few ethical debates raise these questions more often than the cloning of human stem cells.

Human embryonic stem cell research aims to produce a set of cells to replace diseased or damaged tissue. But the human body violently rejects cells that don’t match the individual’s DNA. So the announcement that scientists at Oregon Primate Research Center had created individualised human embryonic stem cell lines by somatic cell nuclear transfer, or “cloning”, seemed to break a longstanding scientific barrier.

The science works like this. Let’s say John wants a source of individualised stem cells. Take one of his skin cells, remove its nucleus containing his DNA and put it into a human egg cell from which the DNA has been removed. The egg will act as if it had been fertilised and begin to create an embryo with every cell made with John’s DNA. If you stop the process four days later, you can take apart the embryo and the cells from its centre will continue to divide forever, making a perfectly matched set, or “line”, of human embryonic stem cells that could be turned into any type of human tissue that John may need. It is a complicated process and has never been carried out in humans, but the Oregon team claims it now has.

The obvious ethical question – should we create human embryos only to destroy them? – has been debated for a decade.

Who will protect the interests of women whose eggs will be needed?

Cloning for matching tissue is also ethically controversial, not the least because once the technology is perfected, the temptation to use it to create human beings will be strong, although there is no jurisdiction in which that is legal. “Experimenting” on how to “make” human babies with this technology would be ethically impermissible, especially since there are far safer and well-tested methods of procreation – there is no defensible medical need for a cloned baby. Cloning technology for therapeutic use might require huge amounts of eggs, which would require women to produce large quantities of eggs, and the creation and destruction of many embryos for each person who needed the intervention, creating and destroying embryos on an industrial scale.

Ethical objections, in addition to the difficulty of making matched tissue, were one of the reasons that Shinya Yamanaka worked out ways to transform adult cells into embryo-like cells without creating an embryo. He won the Nobel Prize for the creation of induced pluripotent stem, or iPS, cells.

The promise of these cells has not been fully realised, but they led to most labs turning from cloning to this less ethically vexed approach.

But almost as soon as the article about the Oregon research was published in the journal Cell, it raised three other significant ethical issues.

First, the published article had three identical figures that were labelled as different, and other data came under suspicion. When this was discovered, the researcher claimed it was “a sloppy mistake” due to “extreme haste”.

Second, the informed consent documents (signed by the persons who had donated skin cells and the women who had donated the eggs) were questioned, for there was no mention of the term “cloning” or that embryos would be created and destroyed. Subjects were apparently told they were a part of an experiment “to place genetic material into a cell”. Researchers say they “verbally told” subjects about the core ethical issue but it is nowhere in the documents.

Third, in some cases the subjects were paid $9,000 for a cycle of eggs, and in many jurisdictions paying women to exchange their eggs is illegal, a safeguard against the exploitation of poor women.

Cell stands by the paper, defending the unusual review process: “It seems that there were some minor errors made by the authors when preparing the figures for initial submission. While we are continuing discussions with the authors, we do not believe these errors impact the scientific findings … in any way.”

Bioethicists were universally stunned by the errors, which raise questions about the credibility of the findings despite the strong credentials of the researchers. Many wonder why the paper did not receive the most careful possible review, especially given the fraud-tainted history of this field. In 2006, Seoul National University’s Hwang Woo-Suk was found to have lied about his research. With the revelation of anomalies in the current paper, cries of déjà vu rained from all sides. Why was this paper published after only four days’ review, a process that normally takes months? Is “sloppiness” a credible defence?

The good news is that scientists are now enacting the process that keeps science legitimate: labs at Harvard are trying to replicate the findings and the informed-consent documents are being scrutinised. If the science is sound and the subjects truly willing, it is possible that we can soon celebrate the advance – and then begin to worry about how we will regulate the process. How will the use of cloning for reproduction actually be prohibited? Who will protect the interests of women whose eggs will be needed? How will the benefits of research be distributed justly?

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Laurie Zoloth is a professor of medical ethics and humanities at Northwestern University, Chicago.
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