Human cloning, regenerative therapy need regulation: Nobel laureates

Taipei, While stem cell research holds potential for understanding and treating diseases, regulation of its application is of equal importance in view of the unscrupulous marketing tactics touting regenerative therapy and the progress being made toward human cloning, Nobel Prize-winning scientists said in Taipei recently.

The use of stem cells for regenerative therapy is "still premature," said Randy Schekman, who shared the 2013 Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine for his role in revealing the machinery that regulates the transport and secretion of proteins in human cells.

Largely, the private clinics widely established in Asia, India and in the West where claims are made that they are using stem cells in various therapies are charlatans, Schekman told CNA April 26 in an interview. "They exploit people's weaknesses and fears and they charge a lot of money."

The professor of molecular and cell biology at the University of California, Berkley said the use of stem cells for regenerative therapy "should be regulated," but he expressed concern that entrepreneurs can find ways to make money, playing on people's vulnerabilities.

"People need to be very careful about this. It is not yet ready for meaningful therapy," he said.

Schekman, who is leading a major effort in stem cell-based therapy to explore treatment for Parkinson's disease, said that the approach holds out promise.

A lot of debate about the ethics of stem cell research involving human embryos has receded after the discovery of induced pluripotent stem cells -- adult cells being reprogrammed to an embryonic-like state -- because the technique does not lead to the destruction of human embryos, he said.

Other concerns remain, however, regenerative therapy being one of them. One argument is that the development of regenerative therapy will eventually contribute to increased lifespans for those who can afford expensive replacement tissue.

In an interview with CNA April 27, Roger Kornberg, who won the Nobel Prize in Chemistry in 2006 for his study about the mechanism of gene expression, said he does not think stem cell research should be held back just because it might lead to dangerous consequences.

Kornberg said the question is how to apply the knowledge gained from the research. "That's true to all sciences. Almost everything we learn can have benefits as well as causing harm."

"You can't prevent the acquisition of knowledge because you cannot control people's curiosity, but you can regulate the application," Kornberg said.

Asked about regenerative therapy, Kornberg said it is a perfect example of a capability that "could be used both for benefit and for purposes with which you might not agree."

Tissue regeneration is terribly important to medicine because gaining the capacity is essential to treatment of genetic defects and damage caused by accidents and disease, he said.

Regarding another controversial issue -- human cloning -- which recently resurfaced after two monkeys were successfully cloned in China using the same method used to clone Dolly the sheep in 1996, both Schekman and Kornberg said technology will eventually advance to replicate humans.

The two monkeys have become the first primates to be cloned in history.

Schekman said he is afraid human cloning "will inevitably happen."

The CRISPR technology for editing genomes will change the way that genetic diseases can be controlled and this could be done in the level of an embryo, he said. "That's not cloning per se, but that technology will inevitably lead to perfection of a technique of cloning humans."

In reality, Schekman said, there are very wealthy people who have cloned their pets at enormous expense, and the commercial effort has gone on for some years.

"You can imagine a billionaire wants to clone himself too," Schekman said. "It's just a matter of time before someone will clone humans. This could be very dangerous. It's already really on the edge. The technology is like the train leaving the station. You can't control it now."

If it's possible to clone primates, it's possible to clone humans, said Kornberg, a professor of structural biology at Stanford University School of Medicine.

"The only way to control it is by regulation," Kornberg said.

Humans have "benefited in every way from our variations," he said. "And creating a deliberately high degree of uniformity would be inconsistent with our ways of life, our expectations and really, the world we want to live in."

Schekman and Kornberg are both members of the Tang Prize Foundation's International Advisory Board. They visited Taiwan in late April at the invitation of the foundation.

Source: Focus Taiwan News Channel