Gerald Schatten, Ph.D., professor of obstetrics, gynecology and reproductive sciences and cell biology and physiology at the University of Pittsburgh School of Medicine, will join South Korean researchers Woo Suk Hwang, D.V.M., Ph.D., and Shin Yong Moon, M.D., in a panel discussion of scientific and ethical issues surrounding cloning research on Wednesday, Oct. 20, at the 60th annual meeting of the American Society for Reproductive Medicine. Scientific sessions will take place Oct. 16-20 at the Pennsylvania Convention Center in Philadelphia.
In February, Drs. Hwang and Moon from Seoul National University, reported the successful harvesting of human embryonic stem cells from a cloned embryo. The cloning symposium, called "Assisted Regenerative Medicine: The Future of ART?" and chaired by Linda Giudice, M.D., Ph.D., of Stanford University, will take place on Wednesday, Oct. 20.
"Human reproductive cloning is unsafe, unethical and ought to be illegal everywhere in the world," said Dr. Schatten, who also is director of the Pittsburgh Development Center at the Magee-Womens Research Institute. "But a ban on all forms of human cloning sends the wrong signal to the scientific community; it stigmatizes the research and will slow the pace of discoveries for decades to come."
Dr. Schatten, who testified before U.N. delegates on the issue in June, is close to the debate because he has been trying to clone primates, which belong to the same overall species classification as humans. The implications of any success for the prospects of human cloning are clear, and Dr. Schatten is exploring ways to make sure that if he succeeds, others won't be able to use his work to advance human cloning for reproductive purposes.
In the U.N., the United States is pressing for a ban on all forms of human cloning, while Belgium heads a faction seeking a ban on reproductive cloning but with the option for countries to approve therapeutic cloning. In 2001, Britain became the first country to legalize research cloning. Researchers hope stem cells derived from therapeutic cloning research will revolutionize medicine by providing better treatments for disorders such as Parkinson's disease, amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS), Alzheimer's disease, heart disease, stroke, diabetes, spinal cord injuries and genetic diseases.
While the hopes are real, scientific findings remain ambiguous concerning actual benefits for patients using stem cells for therapeutic purposes. "Will therapeutic cloning create immune matching? It's unclear. At this point, we don't even know if human embryonic stem cells are safe, let alone effective," said Dr. Schatten. "What's important is that research be allowed to continue so we can find out."
Currently, conflicting policies internationally allow different stages of research in human and animal cloning in different countries. The United Kingdom restricts animal work but allows research on human embryos. In the United States, animal work is allowed but work on human embryonic stem cells is restricted to cell lines in existence prior to Aug. 9, 2001. Related legislation varies from state to state, with Pennsylvania being among the most restrictive. South Korea allows therapeutic cloning research but human reproductive cloning is illegal there.
"Perhaps, in a similar fashion to debates surrounding organ donation, it will be challenging to achieve political consensus until the therapeutic benefits of cloning research are clearly demonstrated," said Dr. Schatten, calling for responsible legislation in the United States and warning that a ban on all cloning research could simply move the science offshore or to privately funded efforts not subject to U.S. regulation. Responsible clinical trials also need to be held soon, perhaps by 2008, Dr. Schatten adds.