Since the cloning of Dolly the sheep in 1997, the tremendous potential of biotechnology has received increasing recognition. Currently, cloning has diversified into inter-related fields with the hope that it will provide a better future for mankind. However, with regards to specific fields of biotechnology, the actual potential benefit may be overestimated when compared to the current facts. This is the scenario for therapeutic cloning.
Therapeutic cloning is based on the transfer of the nucleus, which contains the genetic material, of a cell to an unfertilised egg without the nucleus. These cells are then cultivated to develop into differentiated forms of genetically-identical tissues and organs that can be implanted into humans to replace the defective ones.
Throughout the world, cell therapy has been used extensively with the aim of integrating therapeutically cultivated cells to replace any defective ones. For many, this may be the answer to the problem of shortage of organ donors, considering that people die yearly due to organ shortage. In order to attract world-class researchers, governments have offered numerous incentives. For example, Dr. Colman, who helped clone Dolly, now heads the Singapore-Australia biotech company, ES Cell International after the Singapore government offered a $6 million grant.
However, the down side of such cell therapy, such as the ethical issues that arise from the research, execution and encouragement of therapeutic cloning, may prove more of a burden to handle. Here, ethics is generally defined as the moral dilemma faced between two choices that may result in disparate repercussions. The medical and commercial ethical issues of therapeutic cloning will be described in the following paragraphs.
Medical ethics is the study of moral values applied to medicine. The medical ethics dilemma arises from the difference in opinions between the researchers and the general public. The two groups have different views over the large number of cells required, which are eventually destroyed in the therapeutic cloning research process (Mombaerts, 2003).
The reason for such large-scale usage and destruction of cells is due to the current low success rate of therapeutic cloning. It has been proven that the success rate for nuclear transfer to produce a viable cell and for the actual cloned cell to grow in a monitored way to produce the organ desired is low. The reason for the latter is largely because scientists have yet to fully understand how to control the direction of growth. So the research goal to determine the specific types of tissue into which the cells will grow still remains elusive. The destruction of large number of cells may be justifiable to an extent if there are tangible results; this however is not the case.
This raises the question of whether therapeutic cloning is really necessary. Currently, limited knowledge on the growth process of cells makes the reproducibility of reliable result extremely low. With such great uncertainty, it is questionable whether there should be continued investment on a technology which promises to revolutionise organ transplant but has yet to produce any tangible result.
Moreover, high dosage of hormone therapy and surgery to obtain eggs places the donor’s health at risk and reduces the future reproductive success. On average, a hundred eggs would have to be extracted from each woman (Mombaerts, 2003). The question of whether it is necessary for researchers to resort to such extreme measure arises, especially since the eggs may result in an organ but is more likely to be destroyed in this process.
The issue of commercial ethics arises when there is a dilemma between two groups over how far one should go for commercial gain. The fact that therapeutic cloning has extremely low success rate has been established. Hence, large pool of egg is needed for experimenting on for any conclusive result. However, the price of 850 million to 1.7 billion eggs alone is approximately US$200,000. This excludes the surgical process, incubation that the extracted eggs require and other expenses. To cut costs, women from third world countries may be commercially exploited to extract eggs for researching purposes.
Based on the current factors of inadequate development on cell therapy, high cost relative to its especially low success rate and health risk, therapeutic cloning has still a long way to go before it can be clinically used. Perhaps, therapeutic cloning will feature in the modern history of mankind as a remarkable biotechnological development not for its potential but rather for its ethical controversy worldwide.
Reference: Mombaerts P, (2003, August 29) Therapeutic cloning in the mouse, Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences USA.1st edition, San Francisco: Pearson Education/Benjamin-Cummings