In recent years, the developments in cloning stem cells, sheep, and other life forms, together with the mapping and manipulating of DNA, have opened myriad doors that were previously unimaginable. What had been only a vaguely identified, mysterious labyrinth is fast becoming an operable toolkit. Of course, that is its curse as well as its contribution. With the ability to tailor, duplicate and possibly even invent life forms, scientists have given themselves tremendous power, with which not even the most educated and activistic lawmakers can keep pace. We are sure to wrestle for years to come with the dilemmas posed by our new ability to create life. If nothing else, it will, at least, serve as a cause to fully employ college graduates who majored in Ethical and Religious Studies.
The heated battles over stem cell research which continue to be fought in our legislatures are rooted in heartfelt beliefs and emotions on both sides, due to both the direct implications, and the consequences for related issues. All segments of society should be able to agree that some applications of DNA and cloning science are entirely unacceptable. Hopefully, neither the laboratory crossbreeding of a human and a tomato plant, nor the creation of octopial-armed Buddha-esque figures are on anyone's agenda. But there are considerable benefits to exploring the power of DNA manipulation for agreed-upon purposes.
Ideas / Solutions
While human cloning, and the use of embryonic stem cells, raise a full spectrum of ethical, social, moral, and religious issues, a less comprehensive application of these biotechnologies offers great hope for millions, without raising all the same complex questions or opposition. A government research policy, which embraces the use of limited technologies to improve the quality of life of people who suffer from diseases or are victims of accidents, could be pursued in specific instances without trampling on broader concerns. It could be advanced on an individual basis, according to individual needs, without utilizing controversial classes of stem cells, and without creating new humans.
Stem cell research has matured to the point that organ tissue can be regenerated when implanted in a defective organ. In particular, the use of mesenchymal stem cells, extracted from adult humans rather than from embryos, has recently been seen by Osiris Therapeutics as likely to be capable of regenerating bone, cartilage, fat, tendon, or muscle tissue when injected into the body. A further effort should consider this advance in the context of growth of multi-tissue, complex body parts that are based on an individual's own DNA. This opens the door to compromise between groups with directly conflicting values. As long as stem cells from adults are used, and those of embryos are not used, the Federal government could promote a full-speed-ahead policy.
As the secrets of DNA become increasingly exposed, and are not utilized to create whole new organisms, the same principles should be examined for their ability to clone specific body parts for those in need. The focus would be on duplicating the DNA, and re-creating the specific body parts of the specific individual in need of those parts, rather than using one person's DNA for creation of another whole person. Although this activity could be cynically characterized by some as a perverse "spare parts" enterprise for the human body, the fact of the matter is that, if your arm were severed in an accident, you would surely want a new arm. The public appetite for prostheses is strong. In a sense, it is the same thing, distinct only in that it is built on biological science instead of materials technology.
The value will depend on each person's individual perspective. For a logger who lost an arm on the job, it offers the prospect of returning to a normal life with two fully functional arms. For a quadriplegic whose spinal cord has been severed, it offers hope of playing piano, hide-and-seek, and even football again. For a blind person, whether blind by birth or later trauma, it offers sight. Fetuses with gross deformities might even be able to be cured in utero. Although we are probably a long way from curing cancer, at least its consequences would no longer be critical. The body organs and other tissues that it destroys could be replaced. The focus would be on proper and appropriate manipulation of the individual's DNA, and cloning it into the appropriate body part, followed by applying it with the right graft.
The reduction in lifetime medical expenses and human suffering are incalculable, and would justify the technology. The lessons learned would probably also have considerable applications in other areas, such as the adaptation of species to bolster agricultural productivity in countries where hunger is endemic, or to enhance eco-system objectives. In essence, resolution of this issue through a Political Alchemy could facilitate a genuine biomedical alchemy.