Cloning Without Human Clones

by Meredith Wadman
Copyright 1998 Dow Jones & Co., Inc.
Reprinted with permission of
The Wall Street Journal (January 20, 1998)

Maverick Chicago physicist Richard Seed received a great deal of attention recently when he announced plans to produce a human baby by cloning within the next two years. Over the weekend, University of Wisconsin scientists reported that they had successfully cloned five species--including primates--using cows' eggs as "incubators"; all resulted in miscarriages. The procedure, if ever perfected, could be another tool for the likes of Mr. Seed: If you can clone monkeys from a cow's eggs--which are far more readily available than human ova--why not human beings?


These developments will only increase the pressure already building on Congress to stop all human cloning as soon as it reconvenes next week. And Congress should act: Even if an experiment like Mr. Seed's is one day successful--and the physical risks are now grave--there are significant unresolved moral and ethical questions surrounding the creation of a human who is the genetic duplicate of another. But Congress should be careful to go after cloning with a surgeon's scalpel, and not a chain saw. Otherwise, the politicians risk stifling highly promising medical advances, from improved repairs of battered organs to better infertility treatments that don't involve duplication of any adult.

The states are already learning the perils of careless cloning bans. Last spring in Florida, a bill introduced and then swiftly withdrawn would have banned the cloning not only of people, but of DNA--virtually destroying that state's biotechnology industry. California lawmakers, in the rush to get out of Sacramento last September, passed a cloning ban that also outlawed oocyte nuclear transfer, a promising potential treatment for infertile mothers. This procedure, pioneered by New York University's John Zhang and Jamie A. Grifo, would produce ordinary children, not clones.

Infertility isn't the only malady for which cloning technology shows promise. The cloning experiment that created the famous lamb Dolly opened up remarkable prospects in the area of repairing devastated tissues and organs, because it proved that an adult cell that has become specialized to do a particular job--say, to be liver or blood--can "unlearn" its role and be reprogrammed to do something quite different.

The applications are breathtaking. Imagine a day when a patient with severe liver disease might see another cell of his body--skin, hair, whatever--reprogrammed to act as a healthy liver cell, without the risk of immune rejection inherent in receiving a donated liver. Or a cancer patient whose bone marrow has been wiped out by radiation could be treated with bone marrow grown from another cell of his own body.

To get from here to there, scientists will need to use cloning techniques to study the biological processes at work in days-old embryos. They need to answer questions such as how the DNA and its cellular surroundings interact in the early embryo to direct cells to take their very first steps toward ultimately becoming, say, liver or blood cells.

Much of this work can now be done in animals, but not all. And with time, if human treatments are sought, work will need to be done with human embryos. These are microscopic clusters of eight to 100 cells--embryos confined to petri dishes, not bound for baby buggies.

Congress each year bans federal funding for such work. But this research is legal if financed privately. The worry among scientists is that Congress, when it considers banning cloning for baby making, will not be able to resist banning its use in private embryo research as well.

Indeed, that tendency showed up in the House last summer. Rep. Vernon Ehlers (R., Mich.), a physicist by training, was forced by Science Committee colleagues to rewrite a bill banning federal funding for the cloning of babies to extend the ban to cloning's use in embryo research. The committee passed the bill, which has since languished.

Physicians and scientists were not pleased. "We are very worried that this bill . . . has become a permanent embryo research ban," Sean Tipton of the American Society for Reproductive Medicine said at the time.

This group--composed mainly of infertility doctors--isn't alone. Harold Varmus, director of the National Institutes of Health, told Congress last March: "When I hear about research on human cloning as something that ought to be taken away, I shiver." The great majority of scientific societies responding last year to a poll by a presidential bioethics commission said that they opposed restricting the use of cloning technology for basic developmental-biology research, or for making specific human cell types. Trying to protect that research, scientists are backing the approach President Clinton took in a bill he sent to Congress last June. It would ban cloning for baby making, and not meddle with research.

Honorable people certainly can differ on the ethics of embryo research. So far, Congress has held off banning such work when it's not financed by taxpayers. When the politicians take up cloning, they will serve the public best if they show similar restraint.

Dr. Wadman covers biomedical research policy for the British journal Nature.

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