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Published in LA STAMPA, 14th August 2004

An inhuman decision”, “Nazi science”: these are just two of the comments we Italians heard about the decision of the Human Fertilisation and Embryology Authority (HFEA) to authorise a British research team to go ahead with cloning human embryos for therapeutical purposes. Britain is the first European country to begin this kind of experiment, and although the decision of the HFEA_ the authority which controls and licences all British reproductive medicine and embryo research_ does not concern Italy, but Great Britain, clashes and controversy have invested Italy as well. As a consequence, we decided to go back to the original source and to have an interview with Miograd Stojkovic, professor at the University of Newcastle, who together with professor Alison Murdoch will head the British team which will conduct that research.

Professor Stojkovic, now that your team had been granted the licence, what will the first step be?

Our first goal is to derive embryonic stem cells from cloned human embryos, then we will try to learn something about their behaviour and then focus on their use in curing diabetes.

You said your first goal is to derive embryonic stem cells from cloned human embryos. Aren’t you sure that you can do that?

It is a long journey, but now that we have got the licence we can begin. Early this year a South Korean research team working on this problem was able to demonstrate that it works: that team derived embryonic stem cells from cloned human embryos and proved that they were able to differentiate and produce many types of cells.

Some scientists say yes to stem cells, but no to cloning, neither therapeutical nor reproductive.

You can have either adult stem cells or embryonic stem cells. The first ones don’t involve the ethical problems the second involve, but unfortunately they have the same ability to differentiate that the embryonic stem cells have. And so from a medical point of view, adult stem cells are not as precious as embryonic ones are. As far as embryonic stem cells are concerned, you can derive them either from fertilised egg cells, or from unfertilised eggs cells, but using cloning. Both of these techniques are ethically controversial as they require creating a human embryo and then destroying it. Although we destroy it at the very early stages of its development, religious and anti-abortion groups and others say that an embryo regardless the stage of its development is a human life.

We will speak about the ethical problems later on, as now we would like to understand the scientific ones, because the stem cells controversy is not only about ethics, but also about science. In fact, according to some scientists, in order to develop therapies, embryonic stem cells are not indispensabile, as adult stem cells can work and their use is not ethically controversial. Why do you want to use embryonic stem cells and cloning?

As I already told you, adult stem cells do not have the same ability to differentiate as embryonic stem cells have. And this difference is crucial. Stem cell research, both embryonic and adult, is very young: it has been in existence for very few years, and so those who sustain that we don’t need embryonic stem cells, as adult stem cells can do just as well, actually have no elements to support this statement for the very reason that this field of research is very young. We are just at the beginning. And from what we know so far, adult stem cells cannot do what embryonic stem cells can.

Well, actually you cannot say this with absolute certainty, because as you recognise we are at the beginning of our studies.

Yes, but if we stop studying embryonic stem cells at this very early phase of our research in which, as I already told you, we know very little about stem cells, we risk cutting off very promising opportunities and we risk failure. Whereas if we pursue both embryonic and adult stem cells research, we can learn from both one and the other, and we can reach an understanding of how they work.

Apart from deriving embryonic stem cells, why do you need to use cloning?

First of all we need it to understand how embryonic stem cells reprogram themselves and become, let’s say, nerve cells or pancreas cells, then we need cloning to derive embryonic stem cells we can transplant onto the patients without risking rejection. In fact, since we derive them from a patient through cloning, they are genetically identical to the cells of our patient, who recognises them as his/ her own body.

The Bush administration _ lobbied by religious and anti-abortionist groups_ has forbidden American public research on embryonic stem cells, or rather, you can do it, but you have to use private funds. Is this sensible?

No, I don’t think it is, because decades of scientific research even on very sensitive topics has demonstrated that if we conduct research in public labs, researchers can speak openly and labs are open to visitors and inspections, which can guarantee that nothing is hidden. And this is demonstrated by our story: before starting our research, we had had to apply in order to get a licence, our application was evaluated by the HFEA, an authority which makes decisions in line with precise rules and consults experts who have different opinions. Whereas when scientific research is conducted by private firms it becomes very complicated to establish who is doing what and why, because private firms have commercial secrets and patents and huge economical interests.

Since you mentioned economical interests, according to some, the real motivation for Great Britain to pursue therapeutical cloning is the possibility that British biotech companies will be able to do big business and find themselves in a dominant position in the international market, as the USA is choking embryonic stem cells research during this first and promising phase. Is it true that pharmacuetical and biotech companies are very interested in stem cells? I mean, even if we admit we can really heal ill people using stem cells, isn’t it in the interest of pharmaceutical companies to let patients take pills throughout their lives _ so that they have to pay for drugs throughout their lives_ rather than solve their health problems once and for all using stem cells?

Yes, but it should be said that pharmaceutical companies have big interests in doing human embryonic research as they want to study the drugs’ effects on embryos. In any case, I would like to clarify that we in our team have no pharmaceutical or biotech companies behind us.
Let’s speak about ethical problems, one of those problems is that the science at the basis of therapeutical cloning is very similar to that of reproductive cloning. How do you reply to those you charge your team with paving the way to human reproductive cloning?

By saying that all cloning techniques are based on studies conducted on animals and from this point of view our research is nothing new. If you browse the Internet you can find thousands of studies on animal reproductive cloning and whoever wants to pursue human reproductive cloning could use them and perfect those techniques for humans.

How can we drastically reduce this risk?

Through serious controls. For this reason research has to be conducted in the open.

Finally, how do you reply to those who charge you with destroying a human life when you destroy an embryo, even though in its very early stages of development?

Religion is not my strongest field, but even if we admit we should follow religion to establish what is life and when life starts, nonetheless Catholics say life starts at conception, Jews say it starts 40 days after, Muslims 120 after. Which religion is right?