This article appears in the February 2001edition of the Catholic Medical Quarterly
WHY THE CLONE?
The Commons voted by a large majority in favour of the clone after an exceptionally well attended debate. It was rather a truncated debate as little time had been allocated from the announcement by the government that it was imposing a statutory instrument incorporating the recommendations of the Chief Medical Officer, which cannot be amended, rather than their determination by an Act of Parliament. As the Shadow Health spokesman pointed out, "Parliament has a duty to set ethical boundaries on such ethical and scientific issues to avoid the impression that none existed". Yet another example of the overbearing actions of this government. It was hailed as a free debate with the party whips withholding their admonitory noises but none-the-less savouring the later scrutiny of those who had departed from the mainstream. The Leader of the Opposition voted against.
One leading sketch writer portrayed the debate as 'Science versus the Inquisition' or 'Frankenstein versus Faith'. Neither a true portrayal of science or the faith.
The current House is distinguished by the fact that most of its members are elected on the party ticket, and, although they may have specialised knowledge in limited areas, they are only too frequently influenced by the lobbying they receive from distinguished quarters. Patient support groups, research charities and certain scientists were all pushing for the research. The BMA contacted all 659 MPs to urge them to back embryonic stem cell research. Its chairman pointed out the potentially huge benefit for thousands of people blighted with serious disease, and Dr. Mike Dexter, the Welcome Trust Director, said that if Britain did not go ahead it risked a new 'brain drain' of scientists leaving the country to go abroad.
But the evidence from other countries is that important and successful research is being conducted on adult stem cells. Studies indicate that stem cells in different adult tissues may be more similar than previously thought and may have a developmental repertoire close to that of embryonic stem cells. Italian scientists have demonstrated that adult neu ral stem cells can be successfully converted into muscle tissue. Stem cells from the brain of adult mice were reprogrammed to behave like muscle cells by being placed in close proximity to mature adult cells. The same result was then achieved using neuronal stem cells from an adult human volunteer. These results came from the National Neurological InstItute based in Milan.
From the University of South Florida comes the news that adult bone marrow cells can be converted into immature nerve cells, thus suggesting that eventually cells could be taken from a patient s bone marrow and converted into neurones to treat Parkinson's disease, stroke and other neurological conditions. Our own Imperial Cancer Research Fund reported in July that British scientists had discovered that stem cells in bone marrow could convert into liver cells.
Other workers, as a careful surfing on the Internet reveals, demonstrate not only further astonishing advances in this area but also how these adult stem cells once produced are manageable and do not exhibit the fatigue which is commonly attributed to them.
The astonishing fact in a revue of adult stem cell research is that it is well recognised by the scientific community. It is not a question of 'Sscience versus the Inquisition' as the headlines would like to portray. Careful analysis of the main supporters of the government's line reveals great ambivalence. Dr. Mike Dexter, in a letter to The Times, points out that adult stem cells are already used in some instances. Professor Richard Gardner, Chairman of the Royal Society working group on therapeutic cloning, again in the Times, agrees that the recent reports of initial experiments with adult stem cells are exciting, but says that there are many hurdles to overcome before their therapeutic use is possible. One might suggest the same hurdles apply to embryonic cells. Even Dr. Ian Bogle, Chairman of the BMA, thinks research using both adult and embryonic stem cells should progress in parallel.
Why then this unseemly rush to ignore the ethical dimension of the debate by the government? Why are the legislators ignoring the warning, highlighted by Dr. Richard Nicholson, that the evidence in favour of the effective replacement of defective cells is not yet available, as pointed out in our last issue?
The answer would seem to lie with the fact that the Chief Medical Officer's Report was compiled before the publications of these exciting new experiments.
A moratorium would have been a more appropriate exercise of government to allow for further research on adult stem cells. The Vatican has announced that it is embarking on a study of placental cells for this purpose.