THE BLOG

Mitochondrial Mission Creep and the Cloning Connection

02/18/2015 03:22 pm ET | Updated Apr 20, 2015

On Tuesday February 3, the UK House of Commons voted in favor of legalizing nuclear transfer so that a small number of women with a particular subset of mitochondrial disease could try to have unaffected and genetically related children. The British press headlined it the next day, and the rest of the world's media then caught on that this was a Very Big Deal. The Associated Press report noted that:

While this legislation was drafted specifically to grant permission only for certain specified techniques, critics fear it will encourage scientists to push for other experiments in the future.

No, no, said supporters on both sides of the pond. "This is not a slippery slope," UK Public Health Minister Jane Ellison insisted. Susan Solomon of the New York Stem Cell Foundation agreed. Bioethicist Arthur Caplan also discounted worries about the slippery slope. So did the MP Frank Dobson, in the Commons debate.

Really? We didn't have to wait a week.

On Sunday February 8, British newspapers reported that Shoukhrat Mitalipov of the Oregon Health and Science University (OHSU), who pioneered a variation of the techniques in question, had asked the FDA for permission to start clinical trials of it in order to treat age-related infertility. This concept is not new: It was part of the FDA discussions in February 2014, critiqued and dismissed, and discussed again last summer. Nor is it a surprise that Mitalipov applied, though this may be the first public announcement.

Here's the fun part (#1): Mitalipov told The Independent that "We hope [the UK vote] will help in the US, and hopefully the FDA will move faster." In response, said the UK Telegraph:

if the technology was made available to infertile women in America, there would be growing pressure for Britain to follow, experts said.

This is what's technically known as a Trans-Atlantic Cross-Ruff.

(The term was coined to describe the early career of the American actress Raquel Welch, who arrived in the UK with publicity claiming she was the newest Hollywood bombshell, made a movie in which she wore a fur bikini, and returned home as the newest Hollywood bombshell.)

And here's the fun part (#2): Bioethics Professor John Harris not only supports the idea (he supports pretty much everything techno) but insists that

"It could not be argued this is further down a slippery slope for the simple reason the slippery slope applies to the extension of the technique, not to the use of the same technique for another therapeutic purpose -- and treating infertility is recognised as a therapeutic purpose."

Off-label use of human germline engineering? No problem!

But wait, there's more! Here's the real fun part (#3): Just two days later, on February 10th, Science Insider published this story about Mitalipov:

Stem cell pioneer joins forces with stem cell fraudster

Yes, that means the notorious Korean scientist, Hwang Woo-suk. The guy who claimed to do what Mitalipov actually did do -- custom-make embryonic stem cells. The "fake it till you make it" guy who got caught fabricating data, embezzling public funds and abusing women to get at their eggs. The disgraced guy who has been trying hard to rehabilitate his reputation for a decade. The guy who does clone dogs and wants to clone a mammoth. The guy who desperately hopes to get his license to work with human cells back from the Korean authorities.

Mitalipov tried to walk the story back a bit the next day in Nature, insisting that he was "baffled by reports that he and Hwang would be collaborating on academic research." Hwang would be collaborating with the Chinese company Boyalife on animal husbandry, he said, while Mitalipov would collaborate with Boyalife on non-human primate work. And the $93 million investment mentioned in the Science article? News to him! "I was very surprised to see all those zeroes," says Mitalipov. "We've only had one small meeting."

That doesn't square with Hwang's version, which Science translated from an interview with the Korean Dong-A Ilbo:

Mitalipov's "strength is in primate stem cells. My specialty is in cell nuclear transplantation. So we've agreed that if we combine his strength with mine, we can create a breakthrough outcome in curing maternal line genetic disease, on which he is now focusing," the paper quotes Hwang as saying.

It's entirely possible that Hwang is -- to use another technical term -- bullshitting. But even so, what on earth was Mitalipov thinking? The kindest interpretation is that he is frustrated that he cannot immediately move into human clinical trials in the U.S. But why take up with a disgraced fraudster? Why let himself be photographed shaking hands with Hwang? The picture is dated January 13, and Mitalipov seems to have kept quiet about it, so presumably he suspected he might face criticism. So ... what was he thinking?

Media reaction to these new wrinkles has so far been quite muted, especially compared to the hubbub that accompanied the UK vote. There is no evidence that Mitalipov's proposal is having an effect in Parliament (the House of Lords is yet to vote), and most people seem to have drawn a discreet curtain over the cloning connection. Stem-cell scientist and blogger Paul Knoepfler, on the other hand, called Mitalipov and Hwang "The Odd Couple of Cloning Research" and described the venture as "a major development." Which it may turn out to be.

Presumably, Mitalipov did not actually intend to provide an illustration of the slippery slope. But it's hard not to see it.