Controversial cloning used to make stem cells for diabetes treatment

A new breakthrough has been made in the use of stem cells for the potential future treatment of diabetes.

Researchers in New York have successfully created stem cells with the same DNA as a diabetes patient. These cells were then able to be transformed into insulin producing cells.

In the future, this process could be used to create new replacement cells and tissues of many kinds which could be implanted into the patient without fear of rejection by the patient's immune system.

Senior study author Dr Dieter Egli said in the LA Times "This advance brings us a significant step closer to the development of cell replacement therapies.

"This is about reprogramming a patient's own cells, with their own genotype, with their own DNA that are immunologically matched to them and no one else, essentially. I think this is going to become a reality."

The scientists took skin cells from the patient, a 32 year old women with type 1 diabetes, extracted the DNA-containing nucleus from these cells, and then implanted it into a human embryo, which had already had its own nucleus removed.

As the embryo develops and produces stem cells that are genetically identical to the patient, they are then harvested and the embryo is destroyed.

The cloning technique, known as somatic cell nuclear transfer, is the same process that was used in 1996 to create Dolly the sheep.

Although the study is a substantial break through, it is still not developed enough for medical applications.

Doug Melton of the Harvard Stem Cell Institute who was not involved in this research, said in the Daily Mail, that despite this development representing an "impressive technical achievement", the techniques involved would be more likely used to create new cells for study, rather than a future source of transplant material.

Cost would be a significant barrier to further development of this research. All the processes involved in donating a single human egg cell, including compensation to the donor, costs £8,300.

Because of this and other factors, without substantial changes in the law and the practice of medicine, the supply of human embryos is unlikely to be sufficient for large scale transplant material production. However research to make this possible remains ongoing.

The research is considered deeply controversial because it could be regarded as an example of what has been termed 'therapeutic cloning' - where cloned humans are harvested for biological material, which the UN called on all members to ban in 2005.

Many Christians take ethical objection to the research because it involves the destruction of an embryo, essentially the same as a very early term abortion.

The newly canonised Pope John Paul II said to the UN General Assembly on this subject in 2002: "These techniques, insofar as they involve the manipulation and destruction of human embryos, are not morally acceptable, even when their proposed goal is good in itself."

The Church of England's official view on therapeutic cloning states that it "may be thought of as ethical, as it does not result in another human being".

A briefing paper from the Church of England in 2000 said: "It is important to recognise that embryos are not the sole potential source of stem cells. They may be derived from aborted foetal material, or from certain tissue in the adult recipient, such as bone marrow."

Colin Hart, director of the religious advocacy group the Christian Insititute, said to Christian Today: "Embryonic stem cells should be treated as made in the image of God and should therefore be protected by the law. But the use of adult stem cells doesn't present these difficulties.

"Harvesting stem cells from embryos is highly problematic becasue it is generating embryos and then destroying them."

The Lutheran Church-Missouri Synod takes the view that: "Since 'therapeutic cloning' would result in the destruction of human embryos, we reject this practice as contrary to the Word of God."

Under the UK's Human Fertilisation and Embryology Act 1990, reproductive cloning of humans, even for therapeutic purposes, remains illegal.

Philippa Taylor, Head of Public Policy at Christian Medical Fellowship said to Christian Today that there was little way to get around what this research actually involves: "This new research is cloning. It just does not allow the cloned embryos to grow beyond ten days. Instead the embryo is destroyed to extract the stem cells, rather than being implanted into a woman.

"It may ultimately offer some new benefits but only at the cost of manufacturing and destroying embryos, obtaining large numbers of eggs from women and providing a bridge to human reproductive cloning."