Stem Cells and the Controversy Over Therapeutic Cloning

Dr. Ray Bohlin

Raymond G. Bohlin<< /> is executive director of Probe Ministries. He is a graduate of the University of Illinois (B.S., zoology), North Texas State University (M.S., population genetics), and the University of Texas at Dallas (M.S., Ph.D., molecular biology). He is the co-author of the book The Natural Limits to Biological Change, served as general editor of Creation, Evolution and Modern Science, and has published numerous journal articles. Dr. Bohlin was named a 1997-98 and 2000 Research Fellow of the Discovery Institute's Center for the Renewal of Science and Culture.

A Review of Stem Cells and Their Potential

The Stem Cell Controversy is heating up again and there is much at stake. Vastly different opinions exist both within science and government on what we should do next. As I have stated before, as Christians we need to be as informed as possible on these critical questions, which will shape bioethical discussions for generations to come. Our decisions over the next few years will even shape the very nature of future generations.

The use of stem cells to treat and perhaps cure numerous degenerative diseases and permanent injuries is enormous and intoxicating. The usual list includes diabetes, Parkinson's, Alzheimer's, spinal cord and brain injuries, and many others.

Stem cells derive their name from their similarity to the stem of a plant. Plant stems ultimately give rise to all the different tissues of a plant from the branches, bark, and leaves to the pollen, eggs and petals of the flower.

There are over 1 trillion cells in your body but most of them either never divide or only divide a few times. Most of your brain and neural cells are present at birth and only grow larger as your body grows. But other cells need constant replacing. Skin cells, the cells lining your intestinal tract and lungs, and both red and white blood cells need to be replaced constantly. Therefore, your body contains specialized cells that serve as factories for those cells. These are what are known as stem cells.

Generally these adult stem cells were thought to be fairly limited in their ability to produce new cells. Stem cells found in the lungs would only produce lung cells. It was thought that the brain contained no stem cells at all. Much has changed in the last few years.

We have realized for decades that in the early embryo, within the first week after fertilization, exist embryonic stem cells that can become any tissue in the body. It has been a long-standing dream to be able to harvest and utilize these versatile cells to treat degenerative diseases and permanent neural injuries.

Embryonic stem cells have been stingy in revealing their secrets. In the last fifteen years researchers have succeeded in isolating and cultivating mouse embryonic stem cells and in 1998, scientists at the University of Wisconsin first isolated and successfully cultivated human embryonic stem cells.

The only problem has been that in order to obtain human embryonic stem cells the embryo is destroyed. Initially, the National Institute of Health (NIH) issued guidelines that prohibited the use of federal research money that would harm or destroy human embryos. In August 2001 President Bush continued to enforce this ban, concluding that government funded scientists could only use human embryonic stem cells already established and not create their own.

Why Therapeutic Cloning is a Preferred Source of Stem Cells

Stem cells are hailed as the "on the horizon" solution to numerous incurable diseases and injuries such as Parkinson's, Alzheimer's, diabetes, and brain and spinal injuries. It is hoped that stem cells can replace the damaged or diseased tissues with healthy cells thereby restoring function and immensely improving the quality of life for these patients.

A particularly difficult research problem with embryonic stem cells is the very property that makes them attractive for therapy, their versatility and growth capacity. Embryonic stem cells are hard to control. Within the last few years the story came out of a man in China who was treated with human embryonic stem cells for Parkinson's disease. Unfortunately the cells ended up forming a tumor in his brain that eventually killed him.

We don't really understand the chemical signals in the embryo that channel cells to develop into certain tissues. Experiments with mouse embryonic stem cells have been successful in producing heart and blood cells but when these cells are placed in the body of a diseased mouse, they don't do anything. So there is still much to learn.

One of the other recognized problems with potential stem cell therapies from embryonic stem cells is that they could potentially face the same problem that organ transplants have to deal with, immune rejection. The cells of our body all contain a uniform signal on their surface that identifies them as belonging to a particular body and not someone else's. When a person receives a new heart, his immune system immediately recognizes this as foreign tissue and attacks.

Transplant recipients must receive drugs that suppress the immune system for the rest of their lives to keep their body from rejecting the new organ. Stem cells could face the same problem. Stem cells derived from "leftover" embryos kept frozen at fertility clinics around the world would be recognized as foreign tissue and rejected by the patient's immune system. This could make the therapy worse than the disease.

Therefore, many believe that perhaps the patient could be cloned, using the embryonic stem cells from the cloned embryo for stem cell therapy. Cloning involves taking the nucleus or genetic material from one of your cells and placing it inside a human egg cell that has had its nucleus removed. If the stem cells came from a cloned embryo, they would have the same identical genetic make-up as the patient and should therefore be recognized as the patient's own cells.

This is what is known as therapeutic cloning. But it is the creating of a human embryo for the only purpose of destroying it for its stem cells. That's hardly therapeutic for the clone.

The Human Cloning Breakthrough

In November of 2001, Advanced Cell Technologies or ACT announced that they were the first to report the successful cloning of a human embryo.

ACT published their findings on November 26, in a new online journal from e-biomed called the Journal of Regenerative Medicine in an article titled "Somatic Cell Nuclear Transfer in Humans: Pronuclear and Early Embryonic Development."{1} Well, that certainly sounds technical and significant. While it was certainly technical, the significance may not be what you think. ACT succeeded in gaining important attention and publicity. But the scientific significance may be less than anticipated. The scientists at ACT attempted to clone humans in three different ways with variable degrees of success.

What gained the most attention was the transfer of the nuclei from cumulus cells into egg cells that had their nucleus removed by fusing the two cells together. This has of course been done successfully in six different species to date: sheep, cattle, pigs, goats, mice and most recently, cats. Cumulus cells protect the egg cell after its release from the ovary and have been used successfully in other animals. ACT's attempts to transfer the nuclei from ordinary skin cells failed.

Well, how was this success measured? What the scientists from ACT reported was that the eggs with the nuclei from cumulus cells divided several times before stagnating. Specifically, they divided until there were as many as six cells and then stopped, meaning they died. On top of that, only three out of eight fusions divided at all. Alan Colman, a member of the team that cloned Dolly the sheep, was quoted as saying that the ACT clones are "nowhere near" the necessary blastocyst stage needed for stem cell harvesting.{2}

These results could as easily be termed a failure as a success. In cows, 30 percent of the fused embryos reach the hollowed out blastocyst stage. These results may signal that human cloning may indeed be more difficult than the other animal models used so far. In addition, it was recently announced that scientists in China have already succeeded where ACT has failed. In the Wall Street Journal, it was announced that Chinese fertility specialist, Lu Guangxiu, has been cloning human embryos since 1999.{3}

With such questionable results many have suggested that ACT was primarily interested in publishing to attract more private investors. While that may certainly be part of the equation, I believe that ACT was after something more intangible. The pattern of their publicity indicates that they primarily were attempting to influence public opinion to gain acceptance for procedures they believe necessary.

The Media Campaign of Advanced Cell Technologies

The reported breakthrough by ACT was minimal at best and the surrounding publicity hardly seemed warranted. But there was much more at stake than just a scientific breakthrough. ACT realizes that current public opinion is against them. A June 7, 2001 Gallup poll indicated that 9 out of 10 Americans say that human cloning should not be allowed.{4} This negative public opinion certainly influenced the House of Representatives as they overwhelmingly passed a comprehensive ban on human cloning shortly after the poll was released.

With action threatening in the Senate and a President who has promised to sign such a bill, ACT realized that their efforts could soon be declared illegal. An unprecedented media blitz followed their announcement. ACT CEO, Michael West made the rounds of the Sunday morning news shows and within the week exclusive articles appeared in U. S. News and World Report{5} and Scientific American.{6} Press releases were carried as front-page articles in major newspapers around the country and the world. Both U. S. News and Scientific American claimed exclusive rights. Basically they had inside information no other media outlets had access to.

Specifically, U. S. News claimed to have followed the scientists at ACT for 18 months to get their story. The aims and goals of ACT are painted in glowing and compassionate terms while those who oppose them are ridiculed and marginalized. Michael West and his colleagues at ACT resorted to lies and distortions in their attempt to mold public opinion.

For example, "The source of the hysteria is a wide-ranging misunderstanding of just what an early embryo is, according to West, Cibelli, and Lanza. 'If you ask the average person, they will tell you it's a tiny little person with buggy eyes,' says West. 'But, in fact, these are just a few reproductive cells, not much different than eggs or sperm. They are the raw materials of life, but they are not a person.'"{7} This is deliberately insulting and demeaning to the pro-life perspective. And to refer to the cloned embryo as no different than eggs or sperm is a gross misrepresentation of the facts. Each of us was once a fertilized egg; we were never just an egg or a sperm.

Later in the article Cibelli says, "It's hard to describe why this work is so important, why I would go anywhere in the world to do it. It's just that there is nothing else in all of medical research that is anywhere near this promising." This deliberately and completely ignores the recent breakthroughs in adult stem cell research, which appear to make the sacrifice of embryos unnecessary.

New Advances in Adult Stem Cell Technology

Clearly ACT realizes that public opinion has to change in their favor before Congress has a chance to outlaw their research altogether. Several media outlets participated in the media hype including U. S. News and World Report and Scientific American. While ACT and embryonic stem cells receives all the attention, tremendous breakthroughs have been made in research involving adult stem cells.

ACT's CEO, Michael West, and others freely admit that research with embryonic stem cells is at least 10 years away from clinical trials with people. But clinical trials with human adult stem cells are going on now and providing fantastic results. A report for The Family Research Council states that human adult stem cells have already been used to successfully treat the effects of several human diseases including multiple sclerosis, cancer, system lupus, rheumatoid arthritis and cartilage defects.{8}

But the media has been strangely silent about all this. A major announcement was made in January about the tremendous potential of adult stem cells to change into whatever tissue desired. Researchers led by Catherine Verfallie at the University of Minnesota filed a patent application for a very unusual cell. Dr. Verfallie's cells, which she has isolated from bone marrow, could in principle be extracted from a patient and converted into cells of the heart muscle, brain, liver or skin, depending on which of the patient's tissues needed repair.{9}

What was termed the "ultimate stem cell" was barely mentioned in the media and numerous disclaimers soon appeared saying that research with human embryonic stem cells should not be abandoned. If this research holds up, the need to kill human embryos for their stem cells is completely unnecessary. The medical research community and the media are very reluctant to admit this may be the case. The embryo seems just too intriguing a research subject. Another sign that the research community is determined to pursue therapeutic cloning is a recent article in the journal Science. Three well-respected researchers advocate changing the name from therapeutic cloning to "nuclear transplantation" to avoid confusion with reproductive cloning.{10} The differences between therapeutic cloning and reproductive cloning only occur after the clone is created. Their intent appears to be to dehumanize the embryo to allow therapeutic cloning to remain legal.

There is much at stake in this debate. A comprehensive cloning ban is currently the only solution to protect innocent human embryonic life.


  1. J. B. Cibelli, et al., 2001, J. of Regenerative Medicine, Vol. 2: 25-31.
  2. David Adam, 2001, "First human clones get a cool response," Nature Vol. 414 (29 November): 477.
  3. Karby Laggett and Antonio Regaldo, 2002, "As West mulls ethics, China forges ahead in stem cell research," The Wall Street Journal March 6, p. A1.
  4. Joseph Carrol, 2001, Nine in 10 Americans oppose human cloning,
  5. Joannie Fischer, 2001, "The first human clone," U.S. News and World Report, December 3, p. 50-63.
  6. Jose B. Cibelli, Robert Lanza, and Michael West, with Carol Ezzell, 2002, "The first human cloned embryo," Scientific American, January, p. 44-51. This article was released online at the same week as the U. S. News article appeared.
  7. J. Fischer, U.S. News and World Report, p. 60.
  8. William Saunders and Charles Donovan, 2001, "The Whole truth about Stem Cell Research," Family Research Council, p. 16-17.
  9. Sylvia Pagan Westphal, 2002, Ultimate stem cell discovered,, January 23.
  10. Bert Vogelstein, Bruce Alberts, and Kenneth Shine, 2002, "Please don't call it cloning!" Science Vol. 295 (February 15): 1237.


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