Are We Men or Clones?

In the United States, experiments in the cloning of human embryos to obtain stem cells. In Italy, the hypothesis of the Dulbecco Commission. What is on the horizon of genetics? We talked about this with Fr Roberto Colombo, responsible for the Human Biology and Genetics Research Unit at the Università Cattolica in Milan


AAt the end of November, the news that an American biotechnological company, Advanced Cell Technology (ACT), had experimented with the cloning of human embryos to obtain stem cells traveled around the globe in a few hours, arousing in public opinion a sense of dismay mixed with fear and fascination at the novelty. It was difficult to repress the sensation that human beings were being treated as laboratory animals, on the same level as Dolly the sheep, which “required” the failure of 276 experiments before it was generated. Nonetheless, the ACT researchers, from company President Michael D. West on down, tried to calm the storm that was immediately set off. The biotechnologists used two arms of defense: on one side, they emphasized their intention to do further research to bring the prospect of treating grave illnesses with stem cells closer; on the other, they denied that what had been cloned were embryos, asserting that they were only a group of cells. To clarify the terms of the question, we spoke with Fr Roberto Colombo, responsible for the Human Biology and Genetics Research Unit at the Università Cattolica in Milan, who has just finished writing an entry for the Human Genome Encyclopedia, which will be published in England by the publishers of the journal Nature.

The directors of ACT have announced the cloning of some human embryos for research purposes. What makes this experiment different from the procedure that led to the birth of Dolly and other cloned animals?
Technically, it is a matter in all these cases of the transfer of a nucleus of a somatic cell into an ovocyte whose nucleus has been removed. The difference is not in the method, but in the object. And this is the essence of the unreasonableness of what was done. In scientific research, as in any other investigation of reality, the method is dictated by the object of the study. A different object imposes a different method. You cannot do research on humans with the same method used for experimentation with animals. If this were the case, biomedicine would be reduced to veterinary practice or zootechnics.

The ACT researchers tried to elude the negative judgment on their experiments both by denying they had produced real human embryos and by emphasizing the “therapeutic” value of cloning. Are these reasonable justifications?
Reason (and thus also scientific reason) is not the measure of all things, but openness to reality in accordance with all its factors. The fact that a human embryo is a human embryo and not a bunch of cells is not given by the fact that I designate it as such; if this were true, we would fall into nominalism. It is its constituent factors that make it a reality which reason recognizes as the beginning of the development of a human organism, i.e., an embryo.

On the other hand, if we admit that the therapeutic end justifies any means used to reach it, we fall into Machiavellism. As Kant wrote, man is always an end in himself, never a means. Nominalism and Machiavellism are two dangerous errors of bio-ethics.

What relation is there between the experiments conducted in the United States and what has been proposed in Italy by the Dulbecco Commission with the idea of the TNSA, the so-called “Italian way,” which would permit the production of stem cells by transferring the nucleus of an adult cell into an ovocyte but without allowing an embryo to form?
The former are a documented reality, consistent with what we know about the factors involved in cloning and its result, which is the generation of an embryo similar in every way to what develops after fertilization. The TNSA is an unrealistic dream, in contradiction with all the scientific literature: the transfer of a nucleus into an ovocyte either does not develop anything (as in numerous cases) or it develops an embryo. Tertium non datur. And it is not possible to obtain embryo cells except by starting from an embryo. As Plato said, good men are those who dream about doing what bad men are already accomplishing.

We hear it said repeatedly that knowledge of stem cells cannot do without experiments also on human embryos. But wouldn’t it be possible to concentrate study on animal embryos?
Yes, for example, by cloning a mammal embryo, cultivating some of its multi-potential cells [i.e., capable of being transformed into various types of tissue] and inducing them to differentiate in a culture (in vitro). Reprogramming of nuclei has already been studied on laboratory animals, which constitute an excellent model for acquiring knowledge about the differentiation and graftability of stem cells. Even before being immoral, it is scientifically unjustified to use humans in place of animals.

What can we reply to those who raise hopes for victims of Alzheimer’s, Parkinson’s, and other degenerative illnesses and ask that the progress of science not be halted?
Hope is a certainty for the future that is based on a present reality. And the reality that is most present today in cell therapy research is made up of stem cells obtained from umbilical cords or adult and fetal tissues. It is not necessary to create and destroy human embryos to get stem cells. The surprising plasticity [the capacity to differentiate into different tissues from the original one] of the cells isolated from different tissues in the last two or three years makes them ideal candidates for regenerative therapy in various diseases. The necessity to have stem cells available for therapeutical purposes is not a sufficient reason for harvesting them from human embryos.

What prospects can medicine offer in the near future with cell therapy?
The supreme category of reason is the possibility. In the field of biomedical research as well, it is reasonable to admit that even what is unforeseen and unforeseeable is possible. Before Jenner introduced vaccination a century ago, this form of preventive medicine was unthinkable. The results obtained by Fleming and Chain with penicillin, which, together with vaccination, changed the clinical treatment of infectious diseases, was unimaginable in the nineteenth century. Man’s salvation does not depend on medicine, but his health does. But both of these have a dynamic in common, that of the event, i.e., of the unforeseen and unforeseeable. The event of salvation does not depend on man: salvation is grace. The second event, that of health, is born out of the adventure of man’s reason, which attacks the reality of disease in an attempt to defeat it. Whoever has received the grace of recognizing the first event is facilitated in conceiving of scientific research and medicine as a “diakonia,” as an unexhausted opportunity for man to serve man and not as an occasion to humiliate him or destroy him as he is being born. John Paul II, too, loves research because he loves reality, and all of reality excites him, because “the reality is Christ,” as St Paul writes in his Epistle to the Colossians.