I was incommunicado en France last week, but on my return was greeted with an e-mail informing that my recent posting rate has qualified me for _NN_’s free three-month online Nature subscription. Which is kind of nice, being as I am unemployed and institutionally unattached, and thus kind of reluctant to shell out for a personal subscription or pay for individual articles. So, although blogging constipation is not necessarily a bad thing, it seems regaining some regularity has its benefits.
As I no longer work in research, I confess to not reading (nor revering) Nature religiously. But my subscription stimulated a peruse of the latest edition, and I was quickly drawn to its first-listed editorial, ‘High-interest clones’, which, in commenting on a soberly-titled article, ‘Human oocytes reprogram somatic cells to a pluripotent state’, points out that the authors ‘do not use the term cloning to describe their results.’ (They in fact use it once in their ‘Methods’ to correctly describe a technical detail). Hooray for that! Why would they, seeing as how it isn’t cloning? (How many people have you met with a full triploid karyotype?) So, whilst commenting on the potential for a re-stoking of the supposed ethical controversy which dogs this technology, do the editorial, and the accompanying news item, ‘Cloned human embryo makes working stem cells’, fan the flames, being titled and liberally peppered with the word cloning?
The scientists reporting this important work – demonstrating that excision of the oocyte genome effects developmental failure, whereas its retention in combination with an introduced somatic nucleus allows development to the blastocyst stage, thus facilitating the derivation of (triploid) embryonic stem cells therefrom – sensibly avoid resort to a word with unsavoury science fiction and Promethean myth connotations. Why then, in the process of accommodation for the lay reader, does the Nature editorial – and one or two of the commenting scientists interviewed in the news piece – re-apply it? This is both misleading, in that it is not an accurate term for the procedure described, and damaging, in that it gives the tub-thumpers and knee-jerkers the opportunity to remind us all how ‘unethical’ this technology supposedly is.
The chief ethical considerations here concern the procurement of sufficient numbers of human oocytes, which the authors of the paper commendably address; and whether the scientists are playing the game properly – ie reporting real results. Well, Hwang certainly threw a spanner in the works on both counts there. Yet, although he didn’t even (claim to) try to ‘reproductively clone’ humans, the problem was exacerbated: media headlines screamed ‘Cloning scandal’. Distinguishing, then, between reproductive and therapeutic is rendered futile because the public’s default perception is almost always ‘reproductive’. But is there really any ethical problem with manipulation of the reconstructed cells thereafter? (Some evangelicals and The Pope – like he knows all about ethics, doesn’t he? – would have it so.) Noggle et al deserve credit for their science, and their reporting of it. Let’s hope that the associated publicity does not generate inappropriate reaction.
Noggle S, Fung HL, Gore A, Martinez H, Satriani KC, Prosser R, Oum K, Paull D, Druckenmiller S, Freeby M, Greenberg E, Zhang K, Goland R, Sauer MV, Leibel RL, & Egli D (2011). Human oocytes reprogram somatic cells to a pluripotent state. Nature, 478 (7367), 70-5 PMID: 21979046