Cloning is back in the news. Last week, the Royal Society, the UK's foremost scientific society, issued a paper on stem cell research, which laid particular emphasis on research and therapies using stem cells from adult tissues. According to the Royal Society report, the harvesting of adult stem cells may be a better method for developing therapies for degenerative diseases than harvesting stem cells from cloned human embryos.
The justification for this change of emphasis is scientific. And it seems perfectly reasonable for the Royal Society to consider the issue in these terms. But it's worth remembering the backdrop to the discussion around stem cell research.
Last June, BioNews reported on the government's frosty reception to recommendations that the therapeutic use of cells from cloned embryos be allowed. Instead of acting on the recommendations, the government set up another enquiry chaired this time by the Chief Medical Officer, Liam Donaldson. Part of the enquiry's remit was to look into alternatives to using stem cells from cloned embryos.
The Royal Society's report is a submission to the Donaldson enquiry, which is expected to publish its findings in the next month. In the UK, we're waiting with baited breath to see whether Donaldson will also recommend a change in the law to allow the creation of cloned embryos for therapeutic purposes. Whilst it seems not to be the Royal Society's intention to argue wholeheartedly against the use of stem cells from cloned human embryos, I very much hope that its emphasis on adult stem cells won't be taken as such.
A change in the law to allow stem cell research using cloned human embryos should not be seen as a massive change in current ethical and legal attitudes. The Human Fertilisation and Embryology Act was passed in 1990 to permit continued human embryo research for a number of medical purposes. The Act also permits the creation of embryos specifically for research purposes. As such, the proposition that cloned embryos be created for the purpose of developing medical therapies does not represent a great ethical leap forward, but an advance very much in tune with the law as it stands.
As the Royal Society report points out, research using embryonic stem cells may not bear fruit. But neither might research using adult stem cells. Given these scientific uncertainties, it is vital to keep all of our options open.