Weird science

Science can be scary stuff. If you don’t know any better, the idea that researchers are currently at work on a technique known as “therapeutic cloning” in the hope of producing tissues and organs for transplant into human beings might strike you as a nightmare scenario straight out of Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein.

It’s natural to fear the new and unknown. But the truth is that therapeutic cloning is the best hope medical science can offer to victims of Parkinson’s disease, spinal cord injuries, diabetes and hosts of other incurable conditions, and the potential benefits are simply too great to let fear get the best of us.

That’s why state Senator Deborah Ortiz’s bill legalizing therapeutic cloning is so important. With Congress unable to reach a consensus on federal policy, and President Bush committed to opposing the technique, Ortiz’s measure would set an important precedent, allowing California researchers to move forward and positioning the state to retain its leadership in biotechnology.

What is therapeutic cloning and why is it controversial?

The technique begins with an unfertilized egg cell donated by fertility clinic clients. Researchers then substitute a patient’s DNA for the genetic material contained in the egg and coax it to grow into a blastocyte—a microscopic cluster of about 150 cells. The blastocyte contains stem cells, which have the potential to grow into any kind of human tissue, from blood and bone to brain and muscle. It is widely believed that it will soon be possible to direct these stem cells to grow into whatever sort of tissue the patient might need, then transplant those cells to replace tissue destroyed by injury or disease. Because the replacement tissue would have the same DNA as the patient, there would be little chance of rejection by the immune system—currently the major obstacle to transplant therapies.

This would amount to a miraculous new tool for physicians with almost limitless applications. Doctors who treat Parkinson’s disease could provide healthy new neurons to replace brain cells ravaged by disease. Insulin-producing islet cells could be transplanted into diabetes patients. Victims of many currently hopeless ailments, from spinal cord injuries to Alzheimer’s disease, would have hope.

But for that to happen, the political barriers—and fear of the unknown—will have to be overcome. Religious conservatives have fought therapeutic cloning as morally wrong, essentially because it involves the destruction of a human egg cell. This concern seems misplaced, given that the egg cells involved come from fertility clinic surplus stock and would be destroyed if they weren’t used in research. Others fear that the technique will inevitably lead down a slippery slope to the indiscriminate cloning of human beings. That possibility can best be averted by ensuring that therapeutic cloning is legal and regulated.

Ortiz’s bill takes a vital step in the right direction by legalizing therapeutic cloning research in California. For the sake of the estimated 128 million Americans who could benefit from this revolutionary technique, we urge the legislature and the governor to support it.