Professor Austin Smith, of the UK's University of Cambridge, has told The Times newspaper that the promise of cloning for medical purposes has been oversold. He said that the high profile given to cloning research and science distorts the picture of its potential, risking public perception being misguided - particularly against other, potentially more beneficial forms of stem cell research.
Professor Smith told the paper that research involving the use of cloned human embryos 'clearly upsets the general public', and that while it might be possible that some time in the future cloned human embryonic stem cells (ES cells) might have therapeutic medical applications, such as to create patient matched tissue or cells to treat particular diseases or conditions, this goal may never actually be realised due to the significant technical barriers faced by researchers at the current stage of scientific development.
For these reasons, he said, cloning research - particularly the idea of 'therapeutic cloning' - 'has limited potential and adds little to scientific understanding of human biology'. He also criticised the ideas of 'new' and 'more ethical' methods of creating stem cells, without destroying human embryos, which he said 'actually play into the hands of embryo-rights groups who will always object to ES cell research, by suggesting that scientists are uncomfortable with the ethics of existing techniques'.
The research community should be much clearer about the limitations of cloning research, said Professor Smith, adding that 'its prominence is out of proportion to the significance of what's being done, and there are real question marks about whether it has any utility at all'. The Times article points out that the hype surrounding cloning - including the scandal caused by Woo-Suk Hwang, the South Korean scientist who was later found to have faked his cloning research - may have encouraged the mistaken view among the public as a whole that cloning is essential to all stem cell work. However, research with 'ordinary' stem cells derived from surplus IVF embryos or from adult tissue is more likely to lead to medical benefits, but appears to be less controversial - consequently it has been given much less public attention.
Professor Smith said that he believes that scientists would do better to focus on basic research on ES and adult stem cell cells. He pointed out that both will be studied in depth at the Wellcome Trust Centre for Stem Cell Research in Cambridge, which officially opens today, and with him installed as its first director. Based at the University of Cambridge, and with £10 million of funding from the Wellcome Trust, it will be an international centre of excellence in fundamental stem cell research. It is hoped that it will become the leading research centre in Europe and will compete with leading institutes in Japan, Singapore and North America. 'Stem cell biology is a young and complex area of basic research with emerging potential for biomedical applications', says Professor Smith, adding that 'with current US legislation restricting public funding of human embryonic stem cell research, there is a window of opportunity for the United Kingdom to become a world leader'.