Cloning Expert: Use Embryonic Stem Cells on Terminally Ill

By Patrick Goodenough | July 7, 2008 | 8:17 PM EDT

( - Human embryonic stem cells should be used on willing terminally ill patients even if such treatments have yet to be proven safe in animal laboratory experiments, in the view of cloning pioneer Ian Wilmut.

"They should be allowed to use treatments which have not been properly tested because in their case, the benefits may outweigh the risk," he told The Scotsman newspaper.

"If we wait until things are totally tested and analyzed in animals, it will deny some people that treatment," said Wilmut, who led the team that in 1996 created the world's first cloned mammal, Dolly the sheep.

The controversial suggestion by a top bio-scientist is likely to pour additional fuel onto the debate surrounding embryonic stem cell (ESC) research at a time when the field is already reeling from a scandal over ethical and scientific problems in South Korea.

A leading ethicist in the U.S. criticized the notion of using dying people "in place of lab rats," while the Catholic Church in Scotland -- where Wilmut is based -- cautioned again against the "hype" of cures from ESCs.

Proponents of the research say ESCs may in the future provide treatments for spinal cord injuries or degenerative diseases. But early stage human embryos -- which if implanted into a womb and allowed to develop normally will grow into babies -- are destroyed in the process of providing the cells.

Cloning involves the creation of an embryo with the specific DNA of a donor whose tissue was used to produce it. The theory is that stem cells harvested from such a cloned embryo will be used to treat that individual.

Many opponents of ESC research favor the use of stem cells from alternative -- and ethically unproblematic -- sources such as placentas and bone marrow. These "adult" stem cells are already being used in a range of therapies on humans, with promising results.

Wilmut told the newspaper that he knew of people facing "a steady, slow decline and premature death" who "would be only too keen to participate in trials" using ESCs.

"Imagine you've got motor neurone disease and you've got no movement below your neck," he said. "You hear reports of benefits from stem cells in news reports on the Internet. That person would be very enthusiastic."

Motor neurone disease, also known as ALS or Lou Gehrig's, is a degenerative condition with no known cure.

U.S. bioethics expert and author Wesley J. Smith said Wilmut's idea had "a certain surface attraction" but could cause substantial harm.

It was quite possible that the treatment could go wrong, causing even more suffering to the patient, he wrote in a weblog entry.

"We could fall headlong into the trap of looking upon our dying as so many guinea pigs, furthering the dehumanization that seems to go hand in hand with [so-called] therapeutic cloning and ESC research."

Smith also wondered who would be next in line for experimentation.

"Those in persistent vegetative states? How about quadriplegics who would rather risk a brain tumor [as a result of treatment with untested therapies] than live paralyzed? Once we begin down that road, we enter very dangerous territory."

A spokesman for the Catholic Church in Scotland said the church did not object to the use of adult stem cells in willing patients, but he warned against the hype surrounding cells from embryos.

"It seems unfair that people with very serious illnesses are constantly having hype-filled hope dangled in front of them," the spokesman told another Scottish paper, the Glasgow Herald. "We have to take this with a pinch of salt."

Wilmut was recently appointed the first director of a new Center for Regenerative Medicine, based at Edinburgh University.

In South Korea, claims by world-leading researcher Hwang Woo-suk to have created the first human clone and then produced stem cell lines specific to patients are under intense scientific scrutiny.

He has been accused of unethical research practices and of faking some of his results.

See Earlier Stories:
Korean Panel Confirms Stem Cell Study Was Falsified (Dec. 23, 2005)
Embryonic Cloning 'Embedded in Lies,' Says Ethicist (Dec. 19, 2005)

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Patrick Goodenough
Patrick Goodenough
Spencer Journalism Fellow