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SOURCE: Star-Tribune Newspaper of the Twin Cities Mpls.-St. Paul
SUPPLIER: IntellX
DATE: 02/04/2001
TIME: 00:00
HEADLINE: Ethics debate likely to prevent human cloning in MidwestGeneticists in Minnesota and Wisconsin say they could do it, but thechallenge - scientifically and ethically - is still too great.
HIGHLIGHTS: St. Paul,University of Minnesota

Sharon Schmickle; Staff Writer
(Copyright 2001)
A plan to clone a human being, announced last week by fertility specialists, could have been launched in the Upper Midwest, where experience in making genetic copies of animals has grown dramatically in recent years.
But that doesn't mean it should or would happen here, say experts in animal cloning and reproductive technology.
"There are so many medical and scientific issues that are not resolved," said Dean Morbeck, laboratory director for the Midwest Center for Reproductive Health in Robbinsdale. "We don't have them resolved in animals yet. Why would we think we should do this with people?"
It's not that the chance hasn't come up.
Seriously ill people unwilling to face the finality of death have begged experts at Infigen Inc., near Madison, Wis., for a chance to create genetic copies of themselves, a company official says. "We've had people knock on the door at our office, just out of the blue," said Michael Bishop, president of Infigen, which clones animals in an effort to produce ingredients for human drugs. "They are very sincere. They think that they can use cloning services to extend their lives. It's a sad situation."
He said he has never been tempted to clone one of them, even though "all of the tools are there to do it."
But Bishop and many other scientists expected even before last week's announcement that someone would seize those tools, use them to create a cloned baby and, in doing so, defy intense ethical objections.
The project
The fertility experts who announced their plans Jan. 26 assert that they are serving an ethical purpose by helping infertile couples have children.
The project is led by Italian doctor Severino Antinori, who sparked controversy a few years ago by helping postmenopausal women become pregnant. His collaborator is Panos Zavos, a professor at the University of Kentucky who received his Ph.D. in reproductive physiology from the University of Minnesota. The scientists said that they have lined up 10 infertile patients who want to be cloned and 10 other researchers who will assist with the project in an undisclosed foreign country. Zavos said the team will meet in Rome in March to consider ethical guidelines and to work out a detailed plan for producing a child within two years. The cloning process would involve extracting genetic material from the cells of an existing person and transferring it to a human egg. The egg would then be stimulated to start cell division. If an embryo formed, it would be placed in a mother's womb to grow and develop. The baby would be a genetic copy of the person who donated the cells. In effect, they would be identical twins even though they would differ in age.
Until 1997, the prevailing wisdom was that an adult couldn't be cloned because cells specialize as they develop from an embryo to a full person. The belief was that cells taken from, say, skin couldn't revert to an embryonic state so that they could give rise to all of the parts of a body.
That thinking was shattered in 1997 by the announcement that scientists in Scotland had created a lamb named Dolly from the cells of an adult sheep.
Even so, physicist Richard Seed was pooh-poohed in 1998 when he announced that he would clone humans. Experts said that he lacked the sophisticated laboratory and other resources that would be needed. This time scientists aren't so ready to dismiss the prospect. Animal cloning has advanced rapidly in the four years since Dolly's debut. Infigen has cloned more than 100 cows and many pigs, Bishop said. Mice, frogs and other creatures have been cloned elsewhere. At Texas A&M University, scientists are working to clone cats and dogs. The animal research promises lucrative applications in medicine and agriculture, and leaders of the biotechnology industry fear that outrage over the cloning proposal will prompt legislators to broadly restrict the research.
After Dolly was created, Congress considered bills that would have prohibited cloning not just a human being, but also any cells derived from human embryos. The bills were defeated because of the promise that the research eventually could lead to cells capable of repairing diseased organs, reversing spinal-cord injuries, and other medical applications. Last month, the British Parliament sanctioned limited cloning for just such medical applications but not for creating a full person.
The risks
On Thursday, the Biotechnology Industry Organization declared its opposition to Antinori and Zavos' proposal in a letter to President Bush and called for continuing a voluntary moratorium on such cloning.
"We view this specific cloning technology as unsafe," said the letter, signed by Carl Feldbaum, president of the organization. On purely practical grounds, scientists say the risks are high for miscarriages and medical problems in the children who would be created. Dolly was the sole survivor of more than 200 attempts to clone an adult sheep in Scotland, and scientists don't know exactly what went wrong in the failures.
The success rate has improved dramatically, said Prof. Alan Hunter, an expert in animal reproduction who is associate dean of the College of Agriculture, Food and Environmental Sciences at the University of Minnesota in St. Paul. Even so, important questions about the process remain unanswered, Hunter said. A clone might contain all of the DNA of one parent, but other factors go into making babies the natural way, he said, and some of them aren't well understood.
For example, each person normally inherits a sex chromosome from each parent - an X from the mother and an X or Y from the father. A pair of X's makes a girl and an X and a Y a boy. When researchers attempted to produce female embryos with both X's derived from a female, they've run into "all types of difficulties," Hunter said. Apparently, the father's sperm brings something more than genes to the mating process, but nobody knows exactly what it is. "I'm willing to gamble with mice, rats, cattle and monkeys because I'm going to learn something," Hunter said. "But I want answers to all of the questions that I know are to be asked before I do something that involves humans. . . . Human life is sacred." Another practical obstacle is obtaining the eggs that would be needed for human cloning, said David Ball, who is laboratory director for Reproductive Medicine and Infertility Associates in St. Paul and also works with in-vitro fertilization programs in Kansas, Pennsylvania and Illinois.
One reason that surrogate eggs for fertility treatment are in very tight supply, he said, is that women must go through "a fairly intensive stimulation regimen to get to the point of producing eggs." Zavos and his colleagues did not respond to requests for an interview about those and other objections to their proposal. Some religious groups argue that human cloning interferes with the very notions of family and what it means to be a parent and a unique spiritual being.
Many of the broader ethical debates begin with questions of why anyone would do it.
"I can't see any good reason to want to do it unless you had an absolutely colossal ego and a colossal amount of money to go with it," said Dr. Steven Miles, of the University of Minnesota's Center for Bioethics. "One cannot truly reproduce oneself in the sense of reproducing the prenatal factors, the environment, the type of family and social context that one grew up in."
To be sure, the proposed project is intended to help infertile couples have children of their own. But there are other ways to create families, including adoption, Miles said. And we risk losing the notion that a larger community is a family in which parents should take responsibility for each other's children when the need arises.
If anything, modern genetic research should reinforce that sense of family within the entire human race, Miles said, because scientists are revealing that only a relatively few genes distinguish one person from another.
"The whole notion of genetic continuity strikes me as misconceived given the fact that you and I - even though we are not `related' to each other - are 99.8 percent genetically identical," he said. Sharon Schmickle can be contacted at sschmickle@startribune.com. The cloning trail
From Dolly to primates
(Associated Press photos)
- Dolly, the first mammal cloned from an adult cell - in 1997. - These piglets were cloned from one adult sow in Blacksburg, Va. - These calves were not only clones; researchers at the University of Massachusetts altered their genetic makeup to demonstrate the ability to use genetically modified cattle to produce pharmaceutical proteins.
- This cloned Asian gaur died but gave researchers hope for preventing the extinctions of species.
- These rhesus monkeys were cloned in March 1997.

 


 

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