John Gurdon Embraces Human Cloning

Wesley Smith has reported that Nobel Laureate John Gurdon, who shared the Nobel Prize in Medicine this year with Japanese induced pluripotent stem cell discoverer Shinya Yamanaka, has come out in favor of human cloning.

From the story in the Daily Mail:
‘I take the view that anything you can do to relieve suffering or improve human health will usually be widely accepted by the public – that is to say if cloning actually turned out to be solving some problems and was useful to people, I think it would be accepted,’ he said. During his public lectures – which include speeches at Oxford and Cambridge Universities – he often asks his audience if they would be in favour of allowing parents of deceased children, who are no longer fertile, to create another using the mother’s eggs and skin cells from the first child, assuming the technique was safe and effective.

‘The average vote on that is 60 per cent in favour,’ he said. ‘The reasons for “no” are usually that the new child would feel they were some sort of a replacement for something and not valid in their own right. ‘But if the mother and father, if relevant, want to follow that route, why should you or I stop them?’


Smith then quotes from his magnificent book “Consumers Guide to a Brave New World,” which all my readers to RUN out to buy and read over and over again:

Scientists would have to clone thousands of embryos and grow them to the blastocyst stage [one week] to ensure that part of the process leading up to transfer into a uterus could be “safe,” monitoring and analyzing each embryo, destroying each one in the process. Next, cloned embryos would have to be transferred into the uteruses of women volunteers [or implanted in an artificial womb]. The initial purpose would be analysis of development, not bringing the pregnancy to a live birth. Each of these clonal pregnancies would be terminated at various points of development, each fetus destroyed for scientific analysis. The surrogate mothers would also have to be closely monitored and tested, not only during the pregnancies but also for a substantial length of time after the abortions.

Finally, if these experiments demonstrated that it was probably safe to proceed, a few clonal pregnancies would be allowed to go to full term. Yet even then, the born cloned babies would have to be constantly monitored to determine whether any health problems develop. Each would have to be followed (and undergo a battery of tests both physical and psychological) for their entire lives, since there is no way to predict if problems [associated with gene expression] might arise later in childhood, adolescence, adulthood, or even into the senior years.


Smith, in my view, is spot on. Therapeutic cloning will not stop at using cloned blastocysts to make patient-specific embryonic stem cell lines. The reason for this is that even though cells made from differentiated embryonic stem cells can have therapeutic value, such cells can also be rejected by the immune system of the host animal. A much more fail-safe way to do this experiment is to gestate the embryos to the fetal stage and use the fetal tissues.

Once we go down the road of cloning and destroying embryos just to make embryonic stem cell lines from them, what’s to keep us from aborting fetuses just to get their cells? This slippery slope is real and speaks volumes, none of it good, about a society that sacrifices its youngest and more vulnerable members to serve the needs of others. It cheapens human life to the nth degree and at its lowest point, it simple murder.

Gurdon, however, speaks of reproductive cloning to replace children lost through tragedy. While I can appreciate the sentiment, sentiment is an extremely poor reason basis for ethics. Folks, biology is not destiny. Cloning experiments in animals have shown us that even cloned embryos made from material taken from the same mother, that are genetically identical are neither identical to their mothers nor are they identical to each other. Random events that occur during development and the way each individual responds to their environment shapes them in a unique manner. The cloned sheep Dolly was completely unlike her cloned siblings in personality, behavior, or overall appearance. The same can be said for CC (for “Carbon Copy”), the first cloned cat, which looked unlike her mother and had a very different personality.

Yet these cloned children are asked from the second they are born to replace another child who is unlike them. The cloned child is a human person and while the right for each person to be authentically who there are in an inherent right of all human beings, this very right is denied these cloned kids – they are born for the very reason that they can be someone else. This is a violation of everything it means to be human, and it is the very reason no good thing can come from human cloning.

Gurdon is a brilliant scientist, but as we have seen before, great scientists sometimes make terrible ethicists.

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Professor of Biochemistry at Spring Arbor University (SAU) in Spring Arbor, MI. Have been at SAU since 1999. Author of The Stem Cell Epistles. Before that I was a postdoctoral research fellow at the University of Pennsylvania in Philadelphia, PA (1997-1999), and Sussex University, Falmer, UK (1994-1997). I studied Cell and Developmental Biology at UC Irvine (PhD 1994), and Microbiology at UC Davis (MA 1986, BS 1984).

3 thoughts on “John Gurdon Embraces Human Cloning”

  1. Smith’s predictions about the testing procedures involved in assuring the safety of cloned embryos are bizarre. We didn’t require all of this for IVF; why in goodness’ name would we require it for cloned embryos? By the time we allowed the technology to be used to make human babies, it would already have been extensively tested in nonhuman primates, and the blastocysts themselves can be tested in vitro before implantation. After implantation, it’s conceivable that the fetuses that develop might be inviable and spontaneously abort, or even that they might be born alive and have abnormalities (though, again, testing in nonhuman primates — as well as our long experience with IVF — should give great confidence on this subject), but the vision of implanting thousands of blastocysts and then removing them periodically from the uterus for testing and disposal is not plausibly going to be necessary, scientifically or otherwise, by the time there is any thought of implanting them in humans at all.

  2. Maybe but maybe not. Wesley Smith thinks that cloned kids could potentially become a commercial commodity and the ability to have a cloned baby would have to pass safety muster with the FDA.

    You are right that IVF did not have to go through such a safety net largely because it had already been vetted in other mammalian species; largely rodents, but not just rodents. However, a cloned embryo is a different thing. Embryonic stem cells made from cloned embryos are essentially the same as those made from uncloned embryos (See Wakayama, Cummins and Wakayama, Reprod Biomed Online 2008 16(4):545-52). This is largely due to the fact that cloned embryos show their abnormalities at implantation (see See Rideout, Eggan, Jaenisch, Science 2001 293:1093-8). One of the greatest problems with cloned embryos is their placental abnormalities (see Chayatte-Palmer, et al., Placenta 33 Suppl S99-S104, doi: 10.1016/j.placenta.2011.09.012). Placental problems are also a major cause of pre-eclampsia (see Redman CW, Sargent IL, Placenta. 2003 24 Suppl A:S21-7). Therefore, trying to bring a cloned embryo to term could be a life-threatening. The FDA would require quite a bit of testing to ensure that the gestation of a cloned embryo/fetus would not put the mother at undue risk.

    With respect to testing this on non-human primates, there is a movement away from testing medical procedures and protocols on non-human primates because of their proximity to humans. The great ape project has moved many universities to close the primate research centers. Such testing on non-human primates would be difficult and unlikely.

    Third, work on animals would not completely suffice, since cloned animals have different abnormalities that are species specific (See Yang et al., Nat Genet 2007 39(3):295-302 for examples). Therefore, even if this work was done in animals, the FDA would almost certainly require extensive testing that would require the deliberate slaying of cloned human beings.

    I think Smith is guilty of overstatement, but I do not think that he is completely off track. He is onto something, which is only one of the many reasons not to clone a human being.

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