Who’s Talking about Human Cloning?

celulesmare© OHSU Photos
Egg enucleation.

We had not witnessed a similar media hype since Dolly’s birth —the first mammal cloned from and adult cell in 1997. A North American research team has obtained embryonic stem cells using a nuclear transference technique —the one used with Dolly— and this news has stirred old fears regarding the possibility of human cloning.

The thing is that the article published the last 15th of May by the prestigious journal Cell and written by a research group form the University of Oregon avoids mentioning the word cloning. One should only pay attention to the title chosen for the article «Human Embryonic Stem Cells Derived by Somatic Cell Nuclear Transfer». In spite of the authors’ intention of shunning the possible implications of this success meant for future and hypothetical human cloning, the debate was reopened.

On that same day, mass media from all over the world spread the news. The following day, the possibility of future human cloning made front-page news in Spanish newspapers. Thus, El País (16/5/2013) featured: «Closer to human cloning. Scientists from Oregon make stem cells using Dolly cloning technique». El Mundo’s headline (16/5/2013) was: «Replication of stem cells opens the door to human cloning».  

ABC featured: «First cloning of human embryonic cells»; and added this subheading: «The head of the research team of the University of Oregon denies their goal is cloning people». Their front page also emphasised their editorial: «Science and Ethics have to be compatible». Therefore, the newspaper wanted to clearly define their position regarding this issue. La Razón (16/5/2013) published a more subjective headline: «Human cloning’s leap in the dark». The subheading was also very revealing: «Embryonic stem cells from an adult cloned. Scientists warn the experiment is neither effective nor moral».

La Vanguardia and El Periódico were more focused on the therapeutic possibilities of the research. About this, La Vanguardia (16/5/2013) said «Historical progress in cloning with therapeutic aims». And the newspaper El Periódico (16/5/2013): «Cloning of human cells. A team from Oregon opens the door to the possibility of self-transplants».

Position for debate

In the following days, most of the newspapers fixed their attitudes —as they should in this cases of scoial debate— through their editorials.  

El País showed optimism with these news. In their editorial «Therapeutic cloning» (17/5/2013) they were convinced that: «The success of this technique in humans means a huge advance in regenerative medicine». In fact, they highlighted the role that this technique could play in repairing and transplating tissues: «It opens a new possibility for the creation of organs for transplants or the reparation of damaged tissues, since, having the exact same genes the patient has, those tissues would not be rejected».

La Vanguardia‘s editor-in chief, José Antich, in his editorial entitled «Cloning and bioethics» (16/5/2013) claimed that these news «have been welcomed by the scientific community as a landmark without precedents in the field of genetics ». Despite recognising that the research «means a boost of hope in the way to find a solution for some diseases», he warned: «We should not be rush. As it is logical, and from a bioethic point of view, this important breakthrough will intensify the open debate about the boundaries of scientific research. Where is the limit?» And he finishes: «This is precisely why we should always add a good biothical review to all the good news scientific research provides».



«Obtaining embryonic stem cells using a nuclear transference technique has stirred old fears regarding the possinility of human cloning»

The same newspaper, a few days later (20/5/2013), published an op-ed article, «The debate of stem cells», where the author stated: «It is necessary to clarify that the scientific discovery in Oregon is an important step in the therapeutic use of genetics, but it is far from being final. That is why scientists recomend not to raise false expectations». Another article confirmed the position kept by the newspaper: «A door for the future is open. But it is true that ethical mistrusts and even the fear of misuse is something to be taken into account. Every human breakthrough brings with it some kind of resistance because of the risks they entail».

ABC‘s editorial entitled «Science and ethics have to be compatible» (16/5/2013) said: «Human cloning is specifically forbidden by the Spanish law of Assisted Reproduction, which is completely justified due to moral and legal reasons». And specified that «the degradation of humans, up to the point of becoming just laboratory material because it benefits the progress of medicine, is not admissible».

The conservative newspaper defended establishing bioethical boundaries and warned about the risks of these kind of experimentation: «It is essential to remember some scientific projects carried out by totalitarian regimes in order to be aware of the possible social and political repercussions an uncontrolled spreading of these experiments may have. Therefore, scientific breakthroughs are welcomed, provided that governments, the public opinion and researchers are aware of the fact that humanity has already suffered the actions of those who always justify the means to achieve an ends».

noise and meditation

This commotion could be positve if it helps clarify concepts and promotes thinking about this issue from different points of view. The problem is whether a quiet debate is possible given all the fuzz made about the issue, although it has also enabled the publication of articles on stem cells, like this one signed by Cristina Eguizabal published by Materia.

In the article published by Cell the authors mention nuclear transference of somatic cells, but not cloning. The director of the research team, Shoukrat Mitalipov, admits that the concept was deliberately avoided (El País, 20/5/2013): «The truth is that we have never mentioned cloning because cells cannot be cloned, beings are, and we have never considered cloning humans». A few lines later, he adds: «…if you read the article carefully, the word cloning does not appear in the whole text, we only talk about reprogramming». That shows that the debate is so present that there is no need to use the word cloning. The adjective used for these stem cells, «embryonic», is enough to stir controversy.

A comparative study would be needed to analyse the effect of these news in other countries and the scope of the debate. In Spain, the research has had an added interest: the embryologist Nuria Martí, who joined Mitalipov’s team after being fired from the Principe Felipe Research Center in 2011. The young scientist has become a paradigm of the situation created by the continuous cutbacks on science that has contributed to the flight of highly qualified young scientists to foreign teams of research, a scientific issue that may also need to be dealt with from an ethical point of view.

Lucía Sapiña. The Two Cultures Observatory. Mètode, University of Valencia.
© Mètode 2013.



«This commotion could be positve if it helps clarify concepts and promotes thinking about this issue from different points of view»

© Mètode 2013

Two Cultures Observatory, Mètode.

Journalism graduate by the Autonomous University of Barcelona and Masters Degree in History of Science and Science Communication by the University of Valencia. She is a member of the Two Cultures Observatory, a multidisciplinary research group of the University of Valencia that focuses on the links between journalism and science. Now her research is focused on the communication of cancer, both in press and social networks.