In January 2006, I provided testimony before the Human Services Committee of the Illinois General Assembly on the on public funding of research involving embryo-destructive research and “therapeutic” cloning. I want to quote a length from what I said to that skeptical group of Democrats to show how fast the hype over politicized science can change in the span of a year:
We believe that human cloning poses a grave danger not only to the dignity of the human embryo but to the women who provide the eggs needed for such research. Although it is often overlooked or ignored, women are exploited in the process of human cloning research.
For years the hype over therapeutic cloning has concealed what the scientific community has known for several years: cloning will never lead to a broad range of cures or treatments. The clinical benefits of cloning are years or decades away, and genetically specific treatments will be available to only a select few wealthy patients. Even if it can be perfected, therapeutic cloning will be medicine for millionaires.
As Australia’s Alan Trounson, a world expert on embryonic stem cells, told the science journal Nature Medicine, “so-called therapeutic cloning to my mind is a non-event”. As a way of creating cures, he observed, “it’s just not realistic.” In the same article an American expert, José Cibelli of Michigan State University predicted that “therapeutic cloning is going to be obsolete.”
Lost in the hype over “miracle cures” is the indisputable fact that the human cloning is simply an untenable method for treating diseases. The number of eggs needed for such purposes exceeds the supply by several orders of magnitude.
Creating the embryos needed for individualized treatments requires obtaining a sufficient number of human eggs. Normally women only release one egg per cycle but with the use of ovarian hyperstimulating drugs, the average number created per cycle can be increased to ten.
Although the cloning process currently requires over 200 eggs to create one embryo, scientists estimate that the process could eventually become more efficient, requiring only fifty eggs to create one viable cloned embryo. Based on this increased efficiency five women would need to undergo one cycle of fertility treatment and egg harvesting for each cloned embryo produced.
To understand the clinical implications, let’s limit our focus to a disease like diabetes, which affects approximately 16 million Americans. At the rate of 50 eggs per viable clone, we would need 800 million human eggs – 80 million donations — just to treat this one disease throughout the population. Because there are only 60 million women of reproductive age in America, we would need to harvest eggs from every woman of reproductive age in the country and ask 20 million of them to donate a second time just to get the eggs needed for treating diabetes. What this means is that every single woman who can produce healthy eggs would need to undergo an uncomfortable, painful, and potentially dangerous procedure in order to provide cures for this one disease.
While this is not within the realm of possibility, let’s assume for the sake of argument that every woman of reproductive age in the country was willing to risk ovarian cysts and cancers, severe pelvic pain, rupture of the ovaries, and possible negative effects on future fertility and other conditions that are associated with egg harvesting. Because the process requires the use of ovarian hyperstimulating drugs, approximately 1 in 100 women develop a condition known as Ovarian Hyperstimulation Syndrome. Based on this ratio we can calculate that 800,000 will suffer from this syndrome, a condition that causes rapid accumulation of fluid in the abdominal cavity, chest cavity, and heart and produces symptoms and outcomes such as severe pelvic pain, nausea, vomiting, ovarian enlargement, respiratory problems, blocking of blood vessels by blood clots, and liver dysfunction. A generous estimate is that one thousand of these women who donate their eggs will die.
This type of risk will naturally keep the cost of donor eggs relatively high. If we use the going rate of $5,000-15,000 per donation, we can estimate that the cost will be between $400 billion to 1.2 trillion dollars just to buy the eggs needed to provide treatment for those who suffer from diabetes. Add to this the cost of hospitalization, physician care, creating the clone, and other medical expenses and it becomes apparent that therapeutic cloning would be the most expensive medical treatment in the history of the world.
These facts are readily acknowledged within the scientific community and in the scientific journals. State governments, though, are reluctant to fund expensive research that has no large-scale public benefit, so researchers and biotech companies are forced to overhype the potential in order to obtain the money they need to carry out their research. But in making false promises about the cures, they are not only exploiting the emotions of patients and their families, they are exploiting women by asking them to risk their own health for speculative research.
Last year in the American Journal of Bioethics, Stanford professors David Magnus and Mildred Cho argued that referring to the process of deriving stem cells by somatic cell nuclear transfer as “therapeutic cloning” reinforces the mistaken impression that experiments are therapeutic in nature. In fact, there is no therapy currently associated with [the cloning process]. They add, “allowing research donation to take place under these circumstances is an invitation for a new kind of therapeutic misconception, and should avoided at this early stage of scientific development.”
Because we do not have the information about health risks necessary for women to make a truly informed choice about her reproductive health, responsible research plans must postpone embryo cloning research with human eggs until better data make true informed consent possible for any woman considering the donation of eggs for research. The women of Illinois must not be allowed to be treated as lab animals for speculative research purposes.
Because I didn’t have the letters PhD after my name, my testimony was discounted by the committee chairman; a state representative who believed that the “stem-cell cures” consisted of “injecting embryos into a patient’s spinal cord.” (The committee was so scientifically illiterate that many did not understand the distinction between eggs (human ova) and embryos.)
Now that the ethical means of obtaining such stem cells is becoming a reality, the management of expectataion has begun. In the latest edition of Newsweek Sharon Begley writes:
To a public for whom stem cells equal cure, the real blow will be the realization that the simplistic picture—take a patient’s genes, slip them into an egg, let the egg grow and divide into stem cells that are perfect genetic matches for the patient and transplant those cells to treat diabetes, Parkinson’s, Alzheimer’s—is more fiction than fact. “Creating cell lines for transplant is unlikely to come down the pike any time soon,” Paul Nurse, president of Rockefeller University and a Nobelist in medicine, told the New York Stem Cell Foundation conference last month. “Opponents [of embryonic stem-cell research] recognized that this was an overselling of the technology.” Instead of yielding cures directly, stem cells— reprogrammed and embryonic alike—will take their place alongside other lab systems for studying disease. They will reveal hitherto-unknown causes and pathways of illness, even pointing the way to new drugs. The typical time between such a discovery and a new drug is at least 15 years.
If this sounds familiar it may be because only last week I predicted, “[T]hose who believed the hype about ESCR leading to cures. They will initially be elated — and then dejected when they find that the real potential for ESCR is basic research and that any therapeutic uses are likely to come decades from now.”
Predicting this outcome didn’t require the gift of prophecy. Anyone who was paying attention could have recognized that this science was being overhyped. All it took was knowing the real price of eggs.