Stanford has said its new cancer institute will conduct stem cell research using nuclear transfer techniques - work that many consider to be cloning of human cells. However, Stanford said the characterization of its work as cloning is wrong because the institute won't create human embryos, just cells.
In a statement posted on the university's Web site last week, Stanford claimed the President's Council on Bioethics supported its view - and its planned research. But the council, which officially considers such work to be "cloning for biomedical research," demanded a public apology from Stanford for "obfuscating the nature of such research" and mischaracterizing the council's position.
Stanford changed its statement Wednesday, deleting all references to the council. "Stanford has decided to proceed with cloning research without public scrutiny and deliberation, and has hurt the cause of public understanding of this subject by its confusion of the issue," said the council's chairman, Dr. Leon Kass of the University of Chicago.
Stanford apologized for misstating the council's position, but disagreed that its research constituted cloning. "Although I certainly respect the views Dr. Kass expresses as an honest scientific interpretation, I disagree with his characterization of what the institute proposes to do and the process by which we will do it," Dr. Philip Pizzo, dean of the Stanford medical school, said in a statement.
Last week the new institute's director, Dr. Irving Weissman, said Stanford's research shouldn't be considered cloning because its goal is to study disease, not create a baby or replacement organs. Weissman was out of the country Thursday and couldn't be reached for comment, a university spokeswoman said.
Kass said it is unfortunate that Stanford and Weissman have clouded the ongoing debate over stem cells by disputing that their work will result in cloned human embryos. "It's true that the word cloning raises hackles and that the word embryo makes people think of a fetus with a face," Kass said. "It's absolutely critical that we call things by their right name so we don't kid ourselves about what the moral issues are."
Stem cells are created in the first days of pregnancy and give rise to the human body. Scientists hope to someday direct stem cells to grow into replacement organs and tissues to treat a wide range of diseases. But to harvest stem cells, researchers must destroy days-old embryos--a procedure condemned by the Roman Catholic Church, Bush and some anti-abortion activists and women's rights organizations.
Bush has banned federal funding of new embryonic stem cell programs. Stanford's research will be privately funded. Most stem cell researchers get unwanted embryos donated by fertility clinics. Some researchers see a big scientific benefit in developing new sources of genetically identical stem cells using nuclear transfer.
The technique typically involves replacing an egg's nucleus with genetic material from an adult cell and zapping the creation with an electric jolt to start the replication process. Stanford says its scientists will harvest the resulting stem cells and use them for research, without ever implanting them in a womb.