Being Brave for This New World

Although cloning is the biggest story of 2002, most people have an incomplete understanding of the process and promise of this high-tech procedure. Researchers believe that ignorance, misconceptions and fear of the unknown have led to strict limitations on cloning and stem cell research. Despite this, several scientists claim to have surrogate mothers carrying what may be the first human clone.

By Michael DiSpezio|Wednesday, January 01, 2003

"There is every indication that 2002 will be the year of the clones," said Panos Zavos, boldly. A reproductive specialist from Kentucky, Zavos made the prediction this past May in a hearing before a congressional subcommittee investigating the issue of cloning humans.

By the time you read this, the prediction might have come true. A cloned human being, a near-replica of another person, may be gestating in a womb somewhere or may even have been born. Zavos himself is openly trying to produce a human clone, and he is not alone. In July, for example, a group called Clonaid said it had a surrogate mother carrying a clone in South Korea. An Italian physician made a similar claim.

These practitioners are willing to work in the public glare. Surely other researchers are trying in secret, and still others are cloning and sustaining human embryos without bringing them to term. The world doesn't want a human clone, yet the world is going to have one, whether it is outlawed or sanctioned, hidden or announced, damaged or healthy. "This genie is out of the bottle," said Zavos to Congress, "and it keeps getting bigger by the hour."

The image of the genie,sprung from a glass container and growing like an unfettered fetus, is an apt metaphor. There are three hardheaded reasons to believe that this genie is not a fantasy.

The first factor is the growing supply and demand for what are called assisted reproductive technologies. The United States has approximately 370 in vitro fertilization clinics, where egg and sperm are brought together in a dish and then implanted in women with fertility problems. To support such services, there is a market in human eggs (women are paid several thousand dollars for eggs harvested from one cycle) and in wombs rented from surrogate mothers. In 1999 about 170,000 babies owed their existence to in vitro methods; probably about 100,000 embryos remain frozen in reserve.     Practitioners of this art have managed to resist government oversight by highlighting the desperation of the couples who want babies. But the success of an in vitro procedure is far from guaranteed, especially when the mother is in her mid-thirties or older, so cloning one of the parents may be their final hope for having a child with a biological tie. Zavos says he has a waiting list of 5,000 couples who will take the plunge. An exaggeration? The point is that any fertility clinic has the paying clientele, the raw biological material, and the unregulated opportunity to produce a clone.

The second factor is the accelerating understanding of cloning within academic laboratories. Embryologists who are appalled at the idea of reproducing a human have nonetheless polished the techniques with animals.

Since 1997, seven mammals have been cloned: sheep, cow, mouse, goat, pig, and, just this year, rabbit and cat. Although Dolly, the sheep, was the first to be created from the cell of an adult mammal, years earlier scientists managed to replicate frogs and cattle at the embryonic level. The original cloning method was to split embryos, a process that mimics the way nature makes identical twins. Then scientists discovered they could transfer nuclear material (the DNA contained in chromosomes) from cells of an embryo to an egg whose own nuclear core had been sucked out. It's kind of like sucking the yolk out of a chicken egg and replacing it with a different yolk from another hen. With coaxing and luck, the egg develops into a genetically identical embryo.

The object of the transfers was not to make animals. The embryos were not for implanting in uteruses but were tools for other studies. In some laboratories, the purpose was to track how nascent organisms develop. In other cases, the goal was to establish a line of embryonic stem cells.

One of the wonders of the mammalian embryo is that when it grows to the stage of a blastocyst, about 100 to 200 cells, a portion of the cells can be collected and maintained indefinitely as stem cells. These cells in turn have the potential to develop into any tissue, which means they might eventually be harnessed to grow, say, a new heart. Moreover, if embryonic stem cells were cloned from the patient, he or she wouldn't have problems with immunological rejection of the cultured tissue. In 2001, human embryonic stem cells spawned their own political imbroglio when the federal government blocked scientists from using public funds to create new stem-cell lines.

The possibilities are mazelike.The thread to follow here is that the invention of nuclear transfer technology—the means to move genes between cells and also backward intime—started the countdown to human reproductive cloning. From embryocloning, it has led to an adult clone of an adult animal, and then tobreakthroughs with additional species. Even if there were no demand, the human knockoff would be next, thanks to the relentless pace ofscience.

The third factor enabling a human clone—a force stronger than the fertility clinics and university labs—is the biotechnology business. Industrial agriculture has grabbed on to cloning big-time in order to generate superior specimens of livestock. Agricultural and pharmaceutical interests are making animals carry human genes and cloning the results. We can foresee cloned herds as living factories: Cows and pigs will churn out valuable human proteins in their milk or blood, and tissues and organs for transplantation.

On the domestic front, the death of Boots or Fido will lose itssting. Already a company in Texas is preparing to clone your pet cat.Although some of these applications will be profound and others self-indulgent, the bottom line is that biotechnology is building awell-funded infrastructure that, with a few twists of the dial, canmanufacture a person.

We are well down the slippery slope. The metaphor has become so common that it cuts both ways. Gregory Stock, who directs the program on medicine, technology, and society at the University of California at Los Angeles school of medicine, says in his new book, Redesigning Humans: Our Inevitable Genetic Future: "[T]he slippery slope has been used time and again to oppose all kinds of innovations. But if biological manipulation is indeed a slippery slope, then we are already sliding down that slope now and might as well enjoy the ride." Stock prefers to imagine a slippery sidewalk. "Rather than sliding uncontrollably into some deep abyss, we more likely will take a spill or two, get up, brush ourselves off, and continue cautiously on our way."

The rough slide to a human clone will be due to the low percentages of the methodology. The majority of nuclear transfers in animals don't take, or they produce fetuses that abort at high rates, or they deliver creatures misshapen and sick. In addition, the genes of cloned mice appear to switch on and off in unique patterns, not matching those of the genetic donor. The process of cloning is both wondrously high-tech and crudely hit-or-miss. That's why many biologists believe reproductive cloning of human beings is unethical. Still, many medical researchers insist that the cloning of human embryos continue because the tissue derived from stem cells might treat diseases ranging from diabetes to Parkinson's. Some may even accept full-blown cloning if safety, health, and efficiency can be improved.

Of course, the slipperiness of the slope depends on our views about the beginning of human life and the propriety of experimenting with it. Those are social and ethical values, which a democracy can convert to legislation. However, the United States has no law against human cloning, because Congress has not agreed where the line should be drawn. Therefore the momentum toward a clone is unchecked. As we steel ourselves, it helps to keep in mind the following:

1. A clone isn't a freak. Think of him or her as a delayed identical twin, advises Gregory Stock. In short: Cloning is new, but we can get used to it. "Vaccines, antibiotics, organ transplants, and test-tube [in vitro] babies were each initially viewed as unnatural," Stock says.

 2. A clone isn't really a clone. The genetic copy is not exact, because something called mitochondrial DNA, separate from the nucleus, remains in the egg receiving the transfer. The clone and the original share only 90 percent of their total DNA, except in the unlikely instance that a mother has herself cloned using one of her own eggs. Anyway, factors other than DNA influence organisms. The cat cloned in 2002 is a different color from its genetic parent.

3. The slippery slope is a misnomer. The problem is not about increasingly harmful developments in science that are contrary to our values but about a lack of understanding of science and its applications. To focus solely on the ethics of cloning is to turn a blind eye to the economic and medical demands for the technology, which are values in their ownright. When the full spectrum of our wants and needs is clear, society knows when things have gone too far. When our values are fuzzy andconflicting, we deserve to yield to the human clones.

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