News from the Field - Spring 2002

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Was a Human Embryo Really Cloned?

In a surprise Thanksgiving weekend announcement, Advanced Cell Technology (ACT) announced that it had grown the first human embryo clone to the six-cell stage. The announcement was greeted with both criticism and fanfare and prompted questions from those on both sides of this issue. Many ethicists, religious leaders, environ mentalists, and politicians who oppose all forms of cloning responded to the news with dismay, calling for a complete ban on cloning to be immediately passed by the Senate. Those who support cloning research in hopes that embryonic clones may he mined for their stem cells (which, some people claim, will allow scientists to develop revolutionary medical therapies) both called for a ban on reproductive cloning and questioned whether the ACT scientists had actually cloned an embryo. They criticized ACT for making its announcement in the popular press, rather than in a peer-reviewed journal where the data would have been analyzed. Biologists pointed out that embryos can divide to the six-cell stage without the help of their DNA, underscoring the uncertainty as to whether the DNA in ACT’s alleged embryo was even capable of directing the development of a human being. The controversy surrounding the announcement demonstrates the challenges to the public in understanding complex scientific and ethical issues and developing an informed opinion about them. Education on human cloning and other biotech topics is needed now more than ever if the U.S. is to have laws that properly uphold human dignity.

Ashcroft Moves to Block Assisted Suicide

In early November, U.S. Attorney General John Ashcroft issued an administrative order stating that physicians who prescribe federally controlled drugs for assisted suicide would lose their licenses to prescribe such drugs. A federal judge temporarily blocked implementation almost immediately, pending a legal challenge.The decision, if held, would make assisted suicide illegal in Oregon, the only state where it is currently legal. The case is expected to be a protracted one and may end up in the Supreme Court.

Parthenogenesis: Does It Produce an Embryo?

In late October, scientists at a meeting of the American Society for Reproductive Medicine (ASRM) announced that they had successfully created a new method of obtaining human embryonic stem cells which would allegedly avoid the ethical quandaries associated with the use of human embryos. The method, called parthenogenesis, stimulates an egg to duplicate its 23 chromosomes, or retain the original 46 chromosomes it has early in its development, and then begin divid ing. Scientists asserted that this method is free of ethical concerns because it does not create an embryo, but rather an entity called a “parthenote.” But does it create an embryo? Other proponents of parthenogenesis, such as Michael West of Advanced Cell Technology, have publicly said that the method does create human embryos. How should we proceed in the face of such uncertainty? An initial question to pose: If an entity can produce human stem cells, should it be regarded as human?

Artificial Heart Offers New Hope

A handful of patients who would other wise have died from their heart conditions have been offered a new hope — a mechanical heart. The new device, which is self-contained and needs only a battery pack worn around the waist for power, is still in clinical trials. Patients who have received the heart have been recovering as well as, or better than, expected.

The first patient to receive the new device, RobertTools, died in November from internal bleeding and multiple organ failure. Internal bleeding is one possible side effect from the use of anticoagulants, which must be taken by organ transplant patients. Mr.Tools lived almost six months with the artificial heart — five months longer than he was expected to live with his original heart.