South Australia’s parliament has voted to permit human cloning for the purposes of scientific experimentation. Dr David van Gend argues that debate on this subject has been marred by scientific error.
South Australia’s parliament has voted to permit human cloning for the purposes of scientific experimentation.
“A narrow majority of South Australian upper house MPs, after a debate marred by scientific error and ethical muddle, have approved the creation of second-class, expendable human lives”, said Dr David van Gend, national director of Australians for Ethical Stem-Cell Research.
“They have approved the once-unthinkable: the cloning of living human embryos – not destined for birth (like IVF embryos), but destined solely for research and destruction.
“They have done so even though cloning has now been rendered redundant by the entirely ethical technique of ‘iPS direct reprogramming’ of adult cells.”
Dr van Gend is a general practitioner, based in Toowoomba, and a senior lecturer in medicine.
He criticised scientific lobbyists in South Australia for misrepresenting the science in order to influence the vote: “It is a serious distortion of democracy when MPs, who have no scientific training, can be influenced by scientific arguments that carry the authority of an impressive letterhead, but lack the authority of truth.
“South Australian MPs have supported cloning largely because some scientific heavyweights, in a joint letter, managed to persuade them: 1) about the alleged importance of cloning for stem cells, and 2) about the alleged problems with the iPS alternative.”
On the first point, the scientists wrote to MPs, claiming: “Therapeutic cloning would allow patients to have personalised stem cells which would allow disease-specific cell lines to be made which could be used to study a disease and test drugs.”
“That scenario, however speculative, might have been compelling for other parliaments who voted for cloning”, Dr van Gend said, “because in good faith they believed that cloning was indeed the only possible technique to obtain ‘personalised stem cells’.
“But since November 2007, the claim of ‘uniqueness’ is no longer valid. As leading researcher Jack Martin, emeritus professor of medicine at the University of Melbourne, wrote to South Australian MPs, saying:
“The scientific situation has changed dramatically. Published reports in late 2007 showed that (they) could induce pluripotent stem (iPS) cells, first from mouse, then human adult cells. These iPS cells have been shown to have all the properties previously attributed to embryonic stem cells, and thus provide a means of preparing individually ‘tailored’ pluripotent cells without the major ethical problems involved in ‘therapeutic cloning’.”
Dr van Gend said: “Therefore the essential task for pro-cloning lobbyists was to discredit in the minds of MPs this new ethical alternative to cloning. That is what the scientists did in their letter to MPs. Yet their scientific argument was regrettably incomplete at the time of writing, and obviously false at the time of the vote.”
The letter had stated: “These adult-derived stem cells are genetically modified with viruses. They contain multiple copies of a particular transcription factor, they do not have the same expression pattern as embryonic stem cells and we do not know if they can do everything embryonic stem cells can do. The transcription factors may also be oncogenic (i.e., cancer-causing).”
“That is not a fair representation of the science”, Dr van Gend said. “Surely these scientists knew that Dr Shinya Yamanaka, who first created iPS cells in mice and then humans, had already published in Science magazine in September showing that such cells can be created without any genetic modification with viruses?
“No concern with them being ‘oncogenic’, no interference with the expression pattern – in short, no virus integration at all. So why was this not disclosed to MPs?
“And why did these scientists not inform MPs when the further demolition of their ‘virus/cancer’ argument was published in Nature, weeks before the vote?”
Unnecessary and ethical
Dr van Gend added: “It is not good enough for leading scientists to ‘spin’ the science to achieve a political outcome. South Australian upper house MPs have been subtly misled, and have voted to permit research that is, in truth, both unnecessary and unethical.
“Unlike their counterparts in the Western Australia upper house last year, who rejected cloning, these MPs were not able to grasp that we are in a new era of stem-cell science, where the old arguments for cloning are no longer valid.
“It is now up to wiser heads in the Australian Senate to axe this redundant and inhuman science, when the Federal Act comes up for review next year.”