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Embryo cloning claptrap - is there no limit to public gullibility?

By David van Gend - posted Tuesday, 1 May 2007

It is one of the unhappier jobs of a doctor to tell a patient she is a victim of false hope. But somebody has to do it, and guide her back to reality and any genuine hope for treatment.

We have read of the Brisbane woman who flew to India to receive injections of “embryonic stem cells” into her spinal injury.

To any medically trained person, this story carries the highest suspicion of fraud. Nowhere in the world has an embryonic stem cell ever been injected into a human, for the very serious reason that they cause tumours when injected into animals. Yet some obscure Indian doctor, whose work is not only inherently absurd - claiming to treat Alzheimer’s, which is the very litmus test of stem cell absurdity - and which breaks the cardinal rule of medical research - that experimental treatment must be judged by medical peers before being used on humans - is treated with seriousness by our media.


If only the media could show judgment in what they get excited about. Yes, the first published trial last year using adult stem cells in human spinal injury does show early benefit and gives ground for cautious excitement, but that is with adult stem cells, which are safely used, according to the journal Nature Biotechnology, in some 80 human conditions. Embryonic stem cells remain both dangerous and unusable in humans.

As it stands, the injured woman has shown only the well-known benefits that come to desperate patients given an expensive placebo, at a stage in the injury when some spontaneous improvement might yet be expected.

As a lecturer in the palliation of advanced disease, I understand how desperate some patients can be for “miracle cures”. They will grasp at anything.

And MPs considering the question of embryo research and cloning have to deal with the same desperate hope from patients.

The cloning lobby knows that its most effective approach is to send patient advocates to MPs to say: “If you don’t vote for cloning, you are keeping my little Johnny in a wheelchair longer.” Yet exactly the opposite is true: any MP who diverts money into the dead-end science of cloning and away from the “galloping horse” of adult stem cell science (as Griffith University Professor Peter Silburn put it to the Senate committee) is quite likely to be delaying the one genuine hope such a child has.

The Federal debate showed how vulnerable some of our MPs are to the emotional blackmail of “don’t stand in the way of a cure”.


One after another, they stood with hand on heart and told the Parliament that people had a right to hope, and that they “could not block the hope of a cure”. Their credulity was touching and pitiful - any disease suffered by any relative became reason enough for them to vote for embryo cloning. Like superstitious peasants they believed the witchdoctors who held out hope of miracle cures. And now, in the midst of the debate, we have this Indian embryonic illusion being given a dream run in the media.

By contrast, listen to the serious scientific judgment of leading Australian stem cell researcher, Professor Alan Mackay-Sim, who told the Senate inquiry (see CA68) (PDF 715KB): “The purpose for using therapeutic cloning can be achieved with adult stem cells.”

Cloning for stem cells is unnecessary. We are getting the great benefits of stem cell research, both for treatment and research, with ethical adult stem cell science.

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A shorter version of this article was first published in the Sydney Morning Herald  on April 26, 2007.

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About the Author

Dr David van Gend is a Toowoomba GP and Queensland secretary for the World Federation of Doctors who Respect Human Life.

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