At the heart of this seemingly surreal story are issues regarding the feasibility and ethics of human cloning. Also testifying before the congressional committee are experts in mammalian cloning who will argue that while it is now appears that it is scientifically possible to clone a human, it is far too early to consider such an endeavor. Central to this argument is evidence illustrating that cloned mammals are at far greater risk of gross developmental abnormalities compared to mammals born of natural methods.
As of late, researchers have reported several instances where cloned mammals were either born with or developed gross abnormalities - many of which were fatal. These abnormalities have included extreme overgrowth of the fetus, newborn, youngster and adult, severe respiratory abnormalities, severe developmental delays, and a myriad of birth defects. In one particularly illustrative case, a cloned lamb had to be put to sleep because it couldn't stop hyperventilating.
Many well-known geneticists believe that human cloning would be plagued by the same problems observed when cloning other mammals. Experts who have voiced considerable concern about the practice include Ian Wilmut, creator of Dolly - the first mammal ever cloned, and Ryuzo Yanagimachi, the creator of the first cloned mice.
Some experts in mammalian cloning have hypothesized that the abnormalities observed in many cloned organisms are the result of the method used to clone them. The most common method used to clone mammals is known as "somatic cell nuclear transfer". This method involves the transfer of the DNA from a donor into an egg that has had its own DNA removed. Once the donor DNA is inserted into the egg, electricity is passed through the cell which essentially jump-starts the developmental process. Some experts believe that it is this jump-starting that causes a greater incidence of random errors in the DNA.
It is believed that random DNA errors often lead to cell death, spontaneous abortion, birth defects and other developmental abnormalities. Zavos has indicated that he intends to use somatic cell nuclear transfer in his cloning attempts. Rael and his group will likely use the same or similar methods.
By all accounts it appears that the groups headed by Rael and by Zavos will move forward with their efforts to clone a human - even if the practice is outlawed in the United States and in Canada. These fertility experts appear to see themselves as pioneers and often characterize the concerns that others have about human cloning as over-reactive and far-fetched.
In the most recent edition of Science Magazine, Severino Antinori described human cloning as the "last frontier ... in our attempts aimed at defeating male fertility." In the same issue, Zavos responded to concerns about cloning with a simple, "the genie is out of the bottle". In a recent interview Zavos compared his efforts to clone a human with Neil Armstrong's walking on the moon and Columbus' discovery of America.
Given the perspectives of those at the forefront of this movement, it is likely that a human will be cloned within the next few years. Although outlawing the practice in the United States and Canada might slow down some research - chances are that would only be for a brief period of time. Rael and his colleagues have already established a for-profit human cloning company in the Bahamas and Zavos and his colleagues have said that they are already prepared to cone humans in countries considered more receptive to the practice. Antonori and Zavos have indicated that Israel and some other "middle-eastern countries" are more receptive.
Three factors may stall the cloning of a human being in the not-so-distant future including the appearance of some unforeseen complication with the process (if, for example, the cloned human embryos do not readily implant in surrogate mothers), the enactment of an international ban on human cloning, or the disappearance of a "market" for the practice - that is, the lack of parents willing to pay to for the process
Given that an international ban is highly unlikely, and given that it now appears that it is scientifically possible to clone a human, it appears that parents will ultimately decide whether or not the world is ready for the first human clone. If mammalian cloning experts are correct, parents who do move to clone themselves or their previously born children will need to be prepared for the possibility that their cloned child might die early in life or will be afflicted with one or more serious developmental disabilities or defects.
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