West: 'I'm just trying to help people who are sick'
WASHINGTON (CNN) -- Scientists at Advanced Cell Technology, a biotechnology company in Massachusetts, said Sunday they have created human embryos through cloning. Researchers hope to harvest stem cells -- master blank cells that can transform themselves into any cell in the body -- from the embryos to treat ailments such as Parkinson's disease and diabetes. Dr. Michael West, ACT's president and CEO, discussed the breakthrough Sunday.
CNN: Dr. West, thank you so much for joining us. Briefly tell us and our viewers in the United States and around the world, What exactly have you done?
WEST: Well, we've taken the first step toward what we hope will be a whole new era of medicine. It's been called regenerative medicine. The idea is to be able to do something we've never been able to do before, as simple as it sounds, to give replacement cells and tissues, like the way we repair a car when it's broken. We've never been able to do it in human medicine.
So if you lose cells in the pancreas that regulate sugar levels [and you develop] diabetes, we can't cure that today. We can help make it better with insulin.
But to make replacement cells or tissues is the goal of [this] medicine. We've taken the first steps toward doing that using a controversial, though we think promising, technique, cloning.
CNN: The cloning, though, when people hear that word they get very, very nervous, a lot of people out there, because they assume it's going to result in cloning of human beings.
You know, I think it's paralleled in some ways to in vitro fertilization. Just some 10, 20 years ago, when scientists said they wanted to help people who are infertile by making test-tube babies, it scared a lot of people. It reminded them of [the novel] "Brave New World."
And in the same way, now, 20 years later, when we talk about using cloning technology for transplantation, if you're diabetes, for instance, people say, isn't this "Brave New World"? And it scares people.
And I can understand the immediate reaction, but what I don't understand is that thoughtful bodies like the U.S. Congress would overreact, as the House did recently, saying let's ban all the uses of cloning, even in human medicine. I can't understand that.
CNN: You have cloned a human embryo, is that what you're saying?
WEST: What we're saying is that we've done the first step toward what we call therapeutic cloning. And what the technique was -- [and as you said], it would be the first step also in cloning a human -- to take a human egg cell [and] remove its DNA. So now we have the beginnings of life with no blueprint. And we put a human cell from a different person, in one case, into that egg cell.
The egg cell then does somewhat ... wonderful things. It takes the patient's cell back in time, so that it's embryonic again. And it's sort of, you know, back to the trunk of the tree of cellular life. So that we could then make anything identical to the patient. That's our dream.
As you pointed out, it could also be used -- it could go down a different road. We could implant those cells into a woman's uterus and make a cloned human being. But that's not what we're doing.
CNN: What's to stop someone? You don't want to clone a human being. You want to use these clones, these cell clones in order to cure Parkinson's or diabetes or an individual who's paralyzed ...
CNN: You think you can do that.
CNN: But what's to stop someone from using the technology, the breakthrough that you've come up with, and try to clone a human being?
WEST: Well, in the United States, one thing to prevent that is that there's regulations. The Food and Drug Administration regulates human reproductive cloning. So, if you wanted to go into a clinic and have yourself cloned, you know, look up in our scientific paper and say Advanced Cell used these particular chemicals and, you know, here's the recipe, I want to go be cloned, the Food and Drug Administration would come in and stop that effort.
CNN: But there wouldn't be any stopping of an effort outside of the United States, necessarily?
WEST: That's true.
CNN: So somebody living in some other country could presumably use your medical breakthrough and try to clone a human being?
WEST: I think that's true.
CNN: With all the serious ramifications. Did that weigh heavily on your mind?
WEST: It did. And so we sat down and decided, look, if we published this result, we're making it that much more easy for someone to clone a human being. We maybe have accelerated the cloning of a human being a few weeks or months, so they won't have to try this or that in a batch of chemicals.
But when we weighed, on the other hand of the balance, the potential benefit for human lives, people suffering from Parkinson's and diabetes and spinal cord injury and this long list of disorders that could be cured using this technology, then we felt that it's so much more urgent to rapidly go and try to help these people who are sick.
And the concern about cloning of humans, given that we have regulations in the United States that prevent that, we felt that we should go forward and publish this scientific result so scientists can have this data.
CNN: Well, a lot of our viewers know people who suffer from these diseases. They want to know, How long is it going to take for what you have done to have a practical impact on their lives?
WEST: Well, there is one big variable here, and that's the U.S. Congress. The House of Representatives voted to criminalize even the medical uses of cloning, which I think was shortsighted.
I think there should have been a dispassionate and carefully reasoned debate. Two hours of debate to determine the fate of millions of human beings. And no one disputes that millions of human lives, people who are sick, [are] at stake. Two hours of debate, I think, was careless, to be nice.
The U.S. Senate has to decide this issue now. And I'm hopeful that if we can find a way to allow this miracle of cloning to be used for the good and to prevent any bad, then I think the scientific community would rapidly implement it. And maybe within 10 years, we might see the first applications in human medicine.
CNN: It's going to take that long to be able to translate what you have done into some practical therapeutic benefit?
WEST: That's a good point. These are the first halting steps toward this new area of medicine. And we shouldn't, you know, have illusions that we can go, even with positive response by the U.S. Congress and the president. We should not be under the illusion that next week, next year, our loved ones are going to be helped with this technology. It's going to take some time.
CNN: The cloned cell that you have now developed, the embryo, it came from an individual, a male, and it came from a female. The ethical ramifications of that to many of our viewers, to many people out there, are going to say, "This is the beginning of life. This is a human being."
WEST: Yes. That's another area that needs to be very carefully explored. The pro-life community, at least some members of the pro-life community, have used therapeutic cloning as a new way, a new initiative in the pro-life debate, saying that these are human [lives] and we're talking about making and destroying human life: Fundamentally, biologically wrong.
We're talking about making human cellular life, not a human life. A human life, we know scientifically, begins upwards, even into two weeks of human development, where this little ball of cells decides, 'I'm going to become one person or I am going to be two persons.' It hasn't yet decided.
No cells of the body of any kind exist in this little ball of cells, and that's as far as we believe it's appropriate to go in applying cloning to medicine.
CNN: Is one of the reasons why you decided to publish your paper, your work, right now is to try to influence legislation here in Washington?
WEST: Actually, no. We're a bit obsessive. I'm just trying to help people who are sick, and really that's our focus. And time is of the essence for people that are dying of life threatening disease, and that's really what's our time schedule. We want to apply these technologies as fast as we can, of course, with appropriate debate, appropriate oversight. But I think, you know, time is of the essence. There are people who cannot wait.
CNN: And just to clarify, you definitely want to differentiate what you're doing to those other scientists like Dr. Panos Zavos and others who want to clone human beings.
WEST: My primary point -- I disagree with these people -- is [that] cloning even of animals like cattle, where we're quite efficient at cloning cattle now and getting normal animals, ... would be like saying, Here's a rocket on a launch pad. Admittedly, 20 percent of the time the rocket explodes at launch. And these individuals are out there saying, "Women and children, aboard. Let's go."
Cloning is not ready. It's not known to be safe, either for the woman carrying the pregnancy or for the developing human being itself. And that's our primary concern.
I think these people need some reins put on them. They need to slow down. Any application in reproduction needs to be shown that it would be safe before we can proceed.
Doctor challenges UK cloning ban
November 5, 2001
Stem cell, cloning bills dropped
November 2, 2001
Cloning doesn't run a place in Australia
November 2, 2001
Elizabeth Cohen: Cloning humans vs. animals
August 15, 2001
International opposition to cloning
August 29, 2001
Bid to outlaw human cloning
August 8, 2001
Bioethicist says human cloning is scary
August 7, 2001
Advanced Cell Technology Inc.
E-biomed: The Journal of Regenerative Medicine
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