by Richard M. Doerflinger
March 15, 2002
In the public debate on human cloning, March came in like a lion – not without some lyin' by proponents of this practice.
The storm began with a March 5 Senate hearing, which featured quadriplegic actor Christopher Reeve telling some real howlers. Mr. Reeve cited examples of beneficial research that, he claimed, would be stopped by a ban on cloning embryos for their stem cells. He also spoke dismissively of progress toward treatment of spinal cord injury using non-embryonic cells. In fact, the promising research he cited had nothing to do with cloning -- and the most promising example he cited of a new spinal cord injury treatment uses adult cells from patients' own bodies!
Reeve and other cloning advocates are frustrated at advances in adult stem cell research, which may show cloning to be unnecessary for medical progress. So they launched a new frontal attack, using a twisted interpretation of two studies now posted to the online edition of Nature.
The studies reportedly were designed to learn more about the mechanism by which adult stem cells sometimes "transdifferentiate" to form cells of many different types. For example, researchers (including researchers funded by Christopher Reeve's foundation) have found that adult bone marrow stem cells can produce useful nerve tissue under certain circumstances. Human trials are being prepared for use of bone marrow stem cells to help repair damaged heart muscle, which has already been a success in animals.
The studies in Nature explored this phenomenon, oddly enough, by mixing adult stem cells with embryonic stem cells to promote transdifferentiation. Instead of forming healthy cells of different types, the adult and embryonic cells tended to "fuse" with each other to form tetraploid cells (having twice the usual number of chromosomes). Such cells could be dangerous and even lead to tumor formation.
The obvious conclusions of this study would seem to be: (1) you'd better not mix adult and embryonic stem cells, and (2) this may be one mechanism by which embryonic stem cells tend to form tumors when placed into animals, since all animals (including humans) already contain adult stem cells. Instead, the "spin" placed on the data (faithfully followed by Associated Press and some other news outlets) was this: There is a terrible problem with adult stem cells that may make them unfit for human use, so we should rely on embryonic stem cells for treatments!
That conclusion is absurd. Adult stem cells are working and "transdifferentiating" in our bodies all the time without making tumors, so the new findings are more plausibly attributed to the uncontrollable tendencies of embryonic stem cells. We surely can't draw conclusions about the superiority of embryonic over adult cells by finding problems in a mixture of both.
It seems, though, that some reporters don't care about facts or logic. They and their political allies care about promoting the cause of research cloning. They don't particularly care if, in the process, they denigrate and suppress research that could really help cure people with devastating diseases in our lifetime. Here, as in other campaigns for the destruction of human life, truth is the first casualty. Human casualties, embryonic and adult, will follow.
(Mr. Doerflinger is Deputy Director of the Secretariat for Pro-Life Activities, U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops.)