Special to The Interim

Once again South Korean scientist, Dr. Hwang Woo-suk has made international headlines by creating a number of cloned human beings intended to be killed and harvested for their stem cells. The doctor, whom the National Post called a Korean “folk hero” for his work in human cloning, has obtained stem cells from clones created from patients with specific illnesses.

In the cloning technique, Somatic Cell Nuclear Transfer, the nucleus of a human ovum is removed and replaced with the nucleus of a body (somatic) cell, which has a full set of 46 chromosomes. This action artificially creates the same type of one-celled zygote that is normally created in sexual reproduction with one set of 23 chromosomes from the ovum and one set from a sperm. The embryo thus created is stimulated and begins to divide and grow in the same way as an embryo created by the normal, sexual means. Cloned embryos that are intended for stem cell harvesting are allowed to progress normally to a certain stage of development and are then killed by being opened up and having their stem cells removed from the inner cell mass.

Hwang’s latest breakthrough has been to take cells from patients with spinal cord injuries, type 1 diabetes or a congenital immune disease. These cells are cultivated and induced to multiply creating a stem cell ‘line’ that can, in theory, be used to treat the patients whose DNA the dead clone shared.

Researchers have long theorized that stem cells taken from cloned embryos, human individuals whose DNA is very similar to that of the patient, would skirt the difficulties with immune system rejection. Hwang said, “Our work reveals the possibility that this technology could be applied in the patient himself in the future.” He reiterates the usual caveat, however, that the creation of the cloned cells does not indicate that cures are around the corner.

Hwang continues, however, to be confused about the ethics of his research and maintains that he is opposed to human cloning, which he narrowly defines as creating clones with the intention of implantation and bringing them to full term. In a statement that many are seeing as an example of complete moral disconnect, Hwang told an interviewer in 2004, “I would really like to help treat these kinds of diseases or illnesses, not for the purpose of human cloning. Actually I am against human cloning, myself.”

Dr. Richard Land, the president of the Southern Baptist Convention’s ethics and religious liberty commission, made the point in the Los Angeles Times saying, “A cloned embryo is a human being. We should not be the kind of society that kills our tiniest human beings in order to seek a treatment for older and bigger human beings.”

The international research community was quick to praise Hwang‚s work. Neuroscientist Fred Gage of the Salk Institute for Biological Studies in San Diego called it a “gigantic advance” and “a tremendous boon to the investigation of the nature and biology of human disease.”

Once again, however, the media and the scientific community is ignoring the fact that stem cells derived directly from patients are already widely used to treat a wide range of diseases including Parkinson’s, various forms of cancer, and spinal cord injuries, and that the research is advancing much more quickly than with cumbersome and unethical cloning techniques.