SOURCE: Star-Tribune Newspaper of the Twin Cities Mpls.-St. Paul
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
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
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
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 fertility experts who announced their plans Jan. 26 assert that
they are serving an ethical purpose by helping infertile couples
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
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
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
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
"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 firstname.lastname@example.org.
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
- This cloned Asian gaur died but gave researchers hope for preventing
the extinctions of species.
- These rhesus monkeys were cloned in March 1997.