To do that, he’d like to start cloning human embryos, but federal law prohibits the National Institutes of Health (NIH) from funding research that involves human cloning. Unless the President enacts an outright ban on human cloning, Mitalipov can always set up a lab with private funding. But no private donors have knocked on his door.
And it looks like OHSU has no plans to fund Mitalipov either. Nor will he be receiving an invitation to set up a private lab from Markus Grompe, director of the Oregon Stem Cell Center, an OHSU-based stem cell research lab that was established in 2004.
“I don’t control Shoukhrat and I don’t control the university, but they know my view on this,” says Grompe, who is also a fellow at the Roman Catholic Westchester Institute. “This could be a real negative for OHSU, because the pro-life community is going to view [it] as a problem institution. They may be a minority, but they’re a vocal minority. Do you really want to take that chance?”
Facing a wall of opposition in the United States, Mitalipov recently decided to go overseas and give up his hard-won secrets.
In January and February, Mitalipov went to England to train researchers at Newcastle University’s Centre for Life, a stem cell research lab that’s preparing a first attempt at cloning a human embryo. In exchange for Mitalipov’s help, Newcastle agreed to share future patent royalties with OHSU.
“I had no choice,” says Mitalipov.
Meanwhile, hoping to steer Mitalipov’s cloning research in a more ethically palatable direction, Grompe’s pushing a new process called “altered nuclear transfer.” The technique is essentially the same as Wilmut’s cloning method, but before the cloning begins, the proteins from the donor cell are altered so that the resulting “biological entity” would yield stem cells but would never mature into a viable embryo. Theologians have given the technique their blessing, allowing that since such embryos could never be implanted, they wouldn’t count as potential human lives.
“You have to play the games,” Mitalipov sighs. He then backpedals, insisting that Grompe’s preferred method will provide him with yet more insights into the mystery of the egg. “I wouldn’t do [altered nuclear transfer] just to please those who were critical about the ethics of cloning. To me, what’s important is the science behind it. That’s our master.”
But in the case of human cloning and stem cell research, it’s tempting to think that the master has been relegated to a slave.