Comprehensive coverage

An important experiment in Rambam was stopped

Prof. Itzkovitz asked to extract stem cells from the cloned embryos. The decision was made without the participation of external parties and without public discussion, following a request submitted by the head of a department at Rambam to the Committee for Genetic Experiments on Humans

Initially, the office approved the request
The Ministry of Health approves the cloning of human embryos

By: Tamara Traubman, Haaretz, from Walla News
The Ministry of Health decided to approve in principle the cloning of human embryos. The cloned embryos will be used for research and the production of embryonic stem cells - "unidentified" cells that can be sorted into any of the types of cells in the body. Although embryo cloning is a controversial research, the decision was made by a committee of the Ministry of Health without the participation of outside parties, without informing the public and without an exhaustive public discussion.

The decision was made following a request submitted by Prof. Yosef Itzkovits, director
Women's Department at Rambam Hospital, to the "Helsinki Committee for Genetic Experiments on Humans" - a committee appointed by the Ministry of Health and in charge of approving innovative experiments in genetics. Members of the committee told "Haaretz" that the research proposal was missing various data, such as: from which women will the eggs be taken and how will the request for consent be made from the donors? "We decided to return the request to Itzkovits, so that he could make corrections and submit it again, but in principle it was decided that there is no problem with this," said one of the committee members.

The commissioner for future generations in the Knesset, Judge (retired) Shlomo Shaam, defines the decision as a "scandal". According to him, this is a moral and principled decision, which concerns the whole of society, but the Ministry of Health and the committee "did not inform the public and did not adopt transparency". They said that he intends to use his authority "to demand the relevant documents and the minutes of the discussions, and an explanation why they were not given to the public and there was no transparency".

Prof. Itzkovitz does not want to clone embryos with the aim of implanting them in a woman's uterus and bringing about the birth of a baby, but to study the embryos and extract stem cells from them. Itzkowitz and other researchers hope that in the future it will be discovered how the stem cells can be turned into mature tissues - such as heart tissue or brain cells - and transplanted into patients. For example, it may be possible to cure Parkinson's patients by transplanting the brain cells that are destroyed by the disease, or diabetes patients by transplanting pancreatic cells.

Itzkovitz is already researching embryonic stem cells today. About seven years ago, he took with him fertilized eggs donated by women who underwent IVF treatments in his department, to the University of Wisconsin in the USA. There, the eggs produced the first lines of human embryonic stem cells. However, Itzkowitz and other researchers claim that the research with the existing cells is insufficient: even if the researchers succeed in understanding how the stem cells can be transformed into mature tissues, the body of the transplant recipient will still reject the foreign graft, as is the case with organ transplants that are done today. In the vision of the cloning scientists, a cell will be taken from the body of a sick person, and with it an embryo will be cloned for him with the same genetic structure as his own, and thus the transplant will not trigger a rejection reaction.

Prof. Itzkovits told "Haaretz" yesterday that "at this stage" he does not intend to resubmit the research request. "This is a very complicated and complex project," he said.
Only 2 countries allowed embryo cloning

The controversy surrounding the cloning of human embryos stems from the fact that the research will require the use of many eggs. The eggs are extracted from women in a process that exposes them to risks and imposes a heavy health burden on them. The growing demand for eggs may create a market where eggs and years of life will become a commodity. American conservatives and Christian clergy oppose embryo cloning because, according to their understanding, life begins the moment the egg is fertilized, and using embryos for research purposes violates the sanctity of life and human dignity.

According to a review conducted by Dr. Rosario Isasi, a lawyer from the "Center for Genetics and Society" in the USA, only two Western countries have enacted a law that allows embryo cloning: Great Britain and Belgium. The decision in principle on cloning was made only after the government ministries informed the public and held an extensive public discussion. In the United Kingdom, for example, the discussion was accompanied by a report submitted to Parliament by a special committee appointed for the purpose, public consultations were held in various regions of the United Kingdom, and the issue was discussed extensively in the press. The final decision was made by the parliament, after many and poignant discussions.

In Israel, the decision was made quietly, by a committee of 18 members - most of them doctors or scientists, and there is only one public representative. Even after it was accepted, the Ministry of Health did not publish a notice about it.
Advertisement - On February 18, scientists from Korea reported that they had cloned human embryos and produced stem cells from them. Two weeks later, the head of the research team, Dr. Huang Woo-suk, said at a press conference in the US that he and his colleagues would temporarily stop the experiments involving human eggs. "We will resume the experiments after we receive international opinions and the position of the Korean people and government."

According to Dr. Zelina Ben Gershon, from the Office of the Chief Scientist of the Ministry of Health, the Ministry is "still far" from approving a specific study. Although the Helsinki Committee has already established conditions for carrying out experiments in cloning human embryos, according to her, these are basic conditions and "we may want to define additional conditions. A discussion of such a request is thorough and lengthy, so that as soon as such a request comes, there will be time to inform the public that such a discussion is underway."
Science does not see everything

By Shlomo Shom
Haaretz, 9/3/04

The decision on cloning embryos must not be left to the scientists
The Science and Technology Committee of the Knesset avoided deciding on a first-rate value question last week. It did not approve a permanent and binding norm stating that cloning embryos for reproductive purposes is a prohibited act that is punishable by law.

Instead, the Knesset established a temporary order, according to which the cloning of embryos was prohibited for five years only. At the end of this deadline, when there is a high chance that the experiments will lead to a practical possibility of implementing the cloning, the decision will be brought again to the doorstep of the legislative authority. The Knesset plenum will decide this week whether to accept the reservations of several members of the Knesset, led by the chairman of the committee, MK Mali Polishuk-Bloch, who demand that the law define a permanent norm.

On Sunday, it was announced that the Minister of Health, Danny Noah, was surprised - along with almost all citizens of Israel - to hear that the Helsinki High Commission approved about six months ago the cloning of embryos for research purposes without a proper public discussion. This is a fundamental social and ethical question - should limits be placed on the ways of applying scientific research, and if so - who will determine these limits.

When you hear the members of the scientific establishment who frequently speak out on this issue, led by the Minister of Science and Technology, Modi Zandberg, one might think that the scientific world has so far not caused any harm to humanity and the environment and that it is appropriate to continue to blindly trust the men of science and allow them to outline the vision of humanity's future.

If we didn't live in a world of non-conventional weapons, destructive tools and various pollutants that threaten to destroy the planet - I would be deaf. But it seems to me that it is impossible to ignore the many disasters brought upon us by some of the methods of application of scientific development. When the scientists forget that science does not predict everything, but the goal is to promote the well-being of humanity, creative revolutionaries and anyone who seeks to establish norms for scientific application, even if they do not harm scientific research, become a representative of the Dark Ages.

Human society in general, and Israeli society in particular, must determine what its vision is and what kind of world it wishes to instill in its descendants. The decision must be public, and it cannot be the domain of scientists and the Ministry of Health alone.

It must be determined that a public committee whose members are public figures, philosophers and first-rate ethics people, will decide on the boundaries of cloning that are transferred for research purposes, and all this within the framework of a special law. The world cannot leave the decision in this matter only to the scientists. Human cloning for reproductive purposes gives humanity a tool that, if used carelessly, can be as destructive as the atomic bomb. Who among us would think, for example, that some crazy billionaire in love with himself wouldn't fill the world with legions of people genetically identical to him?

According to the scientific research itself - it is precisely the multiplicity of genetic shades that creates more balanced and healthy people. The medical, moral and social implications of limiting genetic space have not been explored at all. Subordinating cloning to man's desire to resemble God - in terms of "Let us make man in our image, after our likeness" - could build a modern Tower of Babel, and our end could be the end of that tower.

* The writer is a retired judge and serves as Commissioner for Future Generations in the Knesset


Caution in cloning

Haaretz, editorial, 8/3/04

The Minister of Health, Danny Neve, was surprised to discover - following an advertisement in "Haaretz" last Friday - that approval in principle for embryo cloning was given by officials in his office. Noah decided to convene a special discussion in his office. This is a necessary step, but it is not enough.

Cloning embryos for research purposes is prohibited in Israel according to a law from 1999, which states that only tissues are allowed to be cloned, provided that the final goal of cloning is not the creation of a human being. The law, which provided a temporary ban for five years, expired this year, and it will soon be replaced by a new law, which will prohibit cloning for reproductive purposes and allow cloning for medical purposes.

It seems that the Knesset also lacks openness and awareness of the ethical and social aspects of cloning. Most developed countries have restricted embryo cloning. In Australia, Canada and Sweden, the law permits research on excess embryos created in infertility treatments, subject to the consent of the donor parents, but prohibits the research after the 14th day of the embryo's existence. The law in Finland allows the research of surplus embryos, but prohibits the production of embryos specifically for the purpose of research. In the Netherlands, research is only allowed with stem cells derived from excess embryos.

Proponents of embryo cloning in Israel claim that it is not done to produce a person but to save life, and they rely on the British example, which allows, in a law from 2001, to clone embryos for research. However, the British law was drafted following a lengthy public debate, in which public representatives and social experts participated alongside scientists and doctors, and it requires the researchers to work under the close supervision of a special committee. The cloned embryos are created in the UK from eggs taken from women who have undergone oophorectomy (in sterilization surgery, or due to illness), and the cloning technique does not allow the embryo to develop beyond a few days, so that it cannot be implanted in the uterus.

The British legislator, like his colleagues in other countries, was aware of the dangerous ease with which cloned embryos could become a game tool in the fertilization market. In Israel, the decisions regarding cloning were made in three bioethical committees (Helsinki, determination of the status of the fetus, and the advisory committee for the Academy of Sciences), all of which serve mainly scientists and doctors, and their deliberations are not open to the public.

Experience proves that in matters related to fertility, Israel has progressed without public discussion, providing seemingly advanced legislation, and in fact hasty, which harms, among other things, weak and poor women. The chairman of the Science and Technology Committee, MK Mali Polishuk-Bloch, is right in her claim that the Ministry of Health did not define the use of eggs in the legislation and that this issue requires thorough parliamentary work. Postponing cloning will not harm science and medicine. In the meantime, the researchers in Israel can continue researching stem cells from excess embryos and adult stem cells, until the public debate - which takes into account all the social and moral problems associated with cloning - leads to responsible legislation.

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