Stanford Hits the Headlines Over Genetic Research

Stanford pursues human cloning?

Wow. I woke up this morning and saw all sorts of news articles that suggest Stanford is about to engage in human cloning.

For example, there’s this story from the San Francisco Chronicle: Stanford University announced plans Tuesday to create a $120 million institute to study the overlapping biology of cancer and stem cells, including a plan to start cloning new stem cells from human embryos. (source)

Here’s what Stanford has to say: Stanford University Medical Center is not engaged in human reproductive cloning. A story published Dec. 10 by the Associated Press incorrectly characterized the nature of research that would take place at the newly announced Institute for Cancer/Stem Cell Biology and Medicine at the Stanford University School of Medicine.

Creating human stem cell lines is not equivalent to reproductive cloning. The first step in the process of creating a stem cell line involves transferring the nucleus from a cell to an egg and allowing the egg to divide. This is the same first step as in reproductive cloning. However in creating a stem cell line, cells are removed from the developing cluster. These cells can go on to form many types of tissues, but cannot on their own develop into a human. Future research in this field, which will also be pursued at Stanford, will attempt to produce stem cell lines by transferring the nucleus into other embryonic stem cells rather than into eggs. (source)

It looks like the human cloning angle of the story was a little over-hyped in the news, and as far as I can tell, they’re going to be working exclusively with non-fertilized eggs (although I guess in one sense they’ll be creating their own).

I found this quote particularly interesting: “Our avowed goal is to advance science,” said Stanford medical professor Dr. Irving Weissman, who will direct the school’s stem cell effort. “For any group to stay out of the action and wait for someone else to do it because of political reasons is wrong.” (news source, emphasis added).

I don’t pretend to really understand all the science, and so I don’t know how to evaluate what they’re planning to do from a moral standpoint. I do know that political reasons and moral reasons aren’t the same thing at all, although the two categories frequently overlap.

In fact, Weissman intermingles politics and morality in his own comment: the reasons for staying out of the research would be political, but the reasons for engaging in it are moral. That seems a little convenient–almost by definition if doing one thing is political then doing the opposite is political as well. By and large the same observation holds true with respect to morality.

I know that it’s difficult to choose the right words when you’re being interviewed and don’t have time to craft the perfect response, but I found his wording revealing. It doesn’t reassure me that people are thinking through the ethical issues as rigorously as they are the scientific angles.

The news articles I read were pretty superficial, and so I hope I’m wrong.

2 thoughts on “Stanford Hits the Headlines Over Genetic Research”

  1. It would appear that a number of qualified people believe that what Stanford will be doing is, in fact, cloning, including a nobel laureate who teaches there. Go to my blog to get a link to an article that explains this in more detail.

  2. Thanks for the comment, Sean! It’s been a while since I’ve heard from you.

    Further reading I’ve done on this leads me to believe that the word “cloning” means something different to genetic scientists than it does to the rest of English-speaking people.

    I think that explains the differing responses. One scientist is trying to be understood and the other is trying to make people understand.

    For me, the chief issue is whether or not they’re destroying human fetuses. I don’t think that they are, but I just don’t understand the science well enough to say that with certainty.

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