August 2, 2008
Would-be cloners continue to complain that they cannot get enough human eggs for their experiments to create human clones. AP reporter Marcus Wohlsen reports that scientists and biotech entrepreneurs are pushing for payments to women who donate eggs for research.
The push has been especially strong in California and Massachusetts, where payments to egg donors for research are prohibited, and where several research groups continue to push for human clones. Wohlsen accurately lays out the experimental science as well as the controversy. As the article notes, “The conflict centers on an effort to create stem cells from embryos that are exact clones of adults.” Cloning (technically termed somatic cell nuclear transfer, SCNT) involves transferring the nucleus of a body cell such as a skin cell (a “somatic” cell) into an egg that has had its own nucleus/chromosomes removed. The result is creation of an embryo.
But one of the problems with cloning is that it is a famously inefficient technique. This means that a huge number of eggs are required to create just a few embryos. Hence the problem with human cloning—where to get all of the human eggs? As Wohlsen notes, “One of the problems is that there is a significant risk to the health of a woman who donates eggs.” High doses of hormones are used to “hyperstimulate” a woman’s ovaries, to produce not 1 or 2, but 10, 20, or 30 eggs at a time. And the hyperstimulation can lead to serious consequences for the women.
As Wohlsen says, “Even under normal doses, drugs used to coax eggs for use by fertilization clinics can occasionally lead to serious complications caused by excessive stimulation of the ovaries. In rare instances, the condition can be fatal.”
Stanford professors Magnus and Cho give these figures:
“Between 0.3 and 5% or up to 10% of women who undergo ovarian stimulation to procure oocytes experience severe ovarian hyperstimulation syndrome, which can cause pain, and occasionally leads to hospitalization, renal failure, potential future infertility, and even death.”
For a sample of what can go wrong, see the story of Calla Papademas; for more info see the website of Hands Off Our Ovaries, a feminist group opposed to risking women’s health for risky experiments.
In their June 2005 article in Science, Magnus and Cho also address the hype associated with cloning and potential cures, what they term the “therapeutic misconception”:
“…researchers must make every effort to communicate to these volunteers that it is extremely unlikely that their contributions will directly benefit themselves or their loved ones. Also, it is nearly certain that the clinical benefits of the research are years or maybe decades away. This is a message that desperate families and patients will not want to hear.”
Perhaps coincidentally, the Magnus and Cho article appeared in the same issue of Science as one of the fraudulent human cloning papers of Woo-Suk Hwang, where he claimed he had cloned patients to create “patient-specific embryonic stem cells”.
Still the whining continues that many more eggs are needed for cloning. Kevin Eggan at Harvard has complained loudly that two years and $100,000 in advertising brought in a total of only one egg donor. Cloning proponents also claim that the lack of eggs is “preventing medical breakthroughs”. One of their claims is that cloning will create embryonic stem cells that will match the patient who has been cloned, the so-called “patient-specific stem cells”.
Actually two simpler, more straightforward, and cheaper ways to get patient-specific stem cells have already been proven. Interestingly, one result was just announced by… Kevin Eggan of Harvard, making induced pluripotent stem (iPS) cells from the skin of patients with ALS (Lou Gehrig’s disease). The other way has been published by an Australian team, using nasal adult stem cells from patients.
One might wonder, then, why the continued angst about getting eggs and human cloning. One answer may be economic. The only team to publish verified cloning of a human embryo is the company Stemagen, in January 2008. No stem cells were obtained at all, but they are supposedly continuing to try cloning in the hopes that they can market the cells from cloned embryos, or maybe the embryos themselves. Part of their success apparently resulted from getting fresh human eggs direct from the fertility clinic. Conveniently, one of the Stemagen cloners, Wood, runs the Reproductive Sciences Center in San Diego, the in-vitro fertilization clinic that obtains the eggs.
This brings up the question of conflict of interest for those harvesting the eggs, torn between caring for the health of the women donating eggs vs. the incentive to retrieve as many eggs as possible. According to a recent story, more women are donating eggs to fertility clinics, but often to help their financial situation. Supporters of restrictions on payments for egg harvesting for research note that the restrictions are necessary to avoid creating a market for human eggs that encourages women to risk their health for speculative science. Whether the push for egg payments in California is related to creating a market for eggs to allow cloning, and relationships between Stemagen and Alan Trounson, the President of California’s stem cell quango, was recently examined by the California Stem Cell Report. Questions about Trounson have surfaced before, especially in relation to his attempted rat-trick with Australian MP’s during their embryo research debate in 2002.
Given the easier, cheaper, and much more successful alternatives, and the significant ethical problems related to getting human eggs, it would seem the idea of SCNT cloning should be quickly dropped.