Here's looking at me... and me... and me...
You know the scenario: you meet some remarkable person and think to yourself, "They certainly broke the mould when so-and-so was made." Well... maybe not if American scientist Dr. Richard Seed gets his way. He wants to set up human cloning clinics, not in the distant future but in the next couple of months.
Imagine another you in the world, another Pierre Trudeau, Bill Gates, Karen Kain ...or Saddam Hussein?
Seed, who has a PhD in physics from Harvard, attracted international media attention and public condemnation earlier this month when he announced his plans to immediately begin work on a human clone. The Chicago-based scientist says he has done fertility research in the past and wants to clone babies for infertile couples. In an interview with CNN, Seed told the world, "My target is to produce a two-month pregnant female [within the next 18 months]."
His goal is to establish profitable world-wide human clone clinics. U.S. President Bill Clinton is trying to stop him, but Seed says if the U.S. isn't welcoming, he'll simply head elsewhere.
Is this madness or a matter of getting used to the progress of science? Seed believes the opposition to human cloning will "blow over" much like the initial controversy over test tube babies. As an editorial stated in New Scientist magazine recently, "Dolly is out of the bottle and she isn't going back in."
Dolly is the world's most famous sheep. Edinburgh scientists from the Roslin Institute and pharmaceuticals company, PPL Therapeutics, cloned Dolly from a single cell taken from the udder of a six-year-old ewe. She's the first mammal created from the non-reproductive tissue of an adult animal.
The failure rate in the complex cloning process is extraordinarily high. Dolly was the only lamb born from 227 fusions of oocytes with udder cells. Researchers fear human cloning attempts will result in numerous miscarriages and abnormalities. While human
cloning is banned in Britain and in Germany, there's nothing on the books so far in Canada or the United States.
"People are not sheep"
"This flies in the face of what the public wants," says Dr. Diane Cox, professor and chair of medical genetics. "I have a hard time imagining why anyone would want to do this." Cox argues research dollars are better spent helping scientists eradicate diseases in humans, not make carbon copies of them. "With such a shortage of research dollars, it's irresponsible to fuel dollars in this direction."
Dr. Heather McDermid, associate professor of biological sciences, says it is too soon to use the infertility argument when there are other, better reproductive technologies. Since Dolly is the first generation of clone, she questions the long-term consequences. "We just don't know. The results of this may not be known for generations."
There are other concerns, such as defective cells and susceptibility to disease. "A cell contained in the body may have undergone mutations, and it only appears occasionally, like cancer," says McDermid. Cox says a whole herd of animals genetically similar means a bacterium affects all of them. "There are no differences in adapting to disease, which is very important in humans."
And just because a technique is successful with animals doesn't mean it will work in humans. "People are not sheep," says McDermid, who questions where Seed will find women to participate in his research given all the technical problems experienced with creating Dolly. "He can't go around experimenting with 227 women and hope for one to work."
Both professors agree the infertility arguments are weak. But cloning animals, on the other hand, has merit. "It's useful in the agricultural area, where scientists are trying to make the perfect animal for meat producers," says McDermid. Or to create a human protein in cow's milk, says Cox, instead of trying to get it from human blood. "This is of real value to humankind."
Indeed, this is already occurring. Scientists in the U.S. have successfully cloned genetically customized calves and want to use this technique to have cows make human serum albumin. Albumin, a blood protein that regulates the transfer of fluids in the body, is critical to people suffering from liver disease, malnourishment, extreme burns and other conditions.
What purpose, then, does human cloning serve? To fill the void of a deceased loved one, fulfill the ego and perpetuate life for a wealthy industrialist, or supply much needed organs to patients? These are the big ethical dilemmas swirling after Seed's announcement. "It confirmed some of our worst fears about science and cloning in general - that it can't be stopped," says Tim Caulfield, research director of the Health Law Institute. Caulfield says education is part of the process, not just blunt laws banning all research. "We have to look at the nature of the concerns, ask ourselves are they justified and find ways to meaningfully regulate this," he says.
Contrary to popular belief, a human clone will not be identical to its genetic donor. While they share a genetic blueprint, the clone will also have some genes from its mother. More important, the environment, both in and outside the uterus, will shape the individual. Think of it as identical twins raised apart. That means there will never be another you, another Elvis, or another Hitler.
"The clone will be a unique individual, with unique experiences and will develop a unique personality. It will have all the legal rights of any individual," says Caulfield. Indeed, Caulfield argues, if society allows itself to produce clones to supply an army or organs, then cloning, in essence, is the least of our worries.
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