IS IT A BOY OR A GIRL?
ACTUALLY, MY BABY’S A CLONE…
Human cloning: ethically abhorrent, or the driver for a medical revolution? Julie Webb weighs up peril against promise in this fiercely-debated topic.
My first experience of dealing with cloning was from my devoutly Catholic aunt. An opinionated lady, she was adamant that any notion of cloning creatures was morally wrong because, “There is no place in science for playing God.” For her, the idea that a scraping of skin could be used to create a new, genetically identical human being was utterly abhorrent. In sharp contrast, at a debate in London in 2005, I met the leading thinker and bioethicist Peter Stringer. He argued that human cloning should be approved because of the benefits it would give to childless couples. I often wonder whether society will ever be able to resolve these conflicting opinions. In reality, we don’t need to reconcile the ethical poles just yet, because these arguments are only relevant in some hypothetical future where cloning is a well-established and safe procedure. The practicalities of getting cloning to work well in the first place could mean it won’t ever be an option – at least for making babies. The perfecting of any scientific technique such as cloning involves an element of ‘trial and error’. It is hard to see how human cloning could ever become routine without this: it took two hundred and seventy attempts to clone one sheep that made it to adulthood (Dolly). Of the rest, most miscarried and a few were born with life-threatening deformities. In 2009, Spanish scientists reported they had successfully cloned an extinct species of goat – but it died shortly after birth due to lung defects. All sane scientists know only too well that cloning embryos is fraught with difficulty. A clone able to survive to become a normal adult, without any defects or deformities, is the exception rather than the rule. Assuming technical hurdles will be overcome, another issue surrounds the prospective parents of a cloned child. A baby clone has three parents: one who supplied the genetic material, one who supplied the egg, and one who supplied the womb. If the chances of success for human cloning were the same as in sheep (and there’s no reason to believe otherwise) then to set up a human experiment researchers would need: one genetic donor approximately 300 surrogate mothers approximately three hundred human eggs (to insert the genetic donor’s DNA into) It is hardly ethical to ask one woman, never mind three hundred, to get pregnant in the name of scientific research when the pregnancy is likely to end in a risky miscarriage. Eminent scientific institutions, such as the American Association for the Advancement of Science, and pioneering scientists including Professor Sir Ian Wilmut, the leader of the group who cloned Dolly the sheep, have publicly announced that cloning to make new humans is not safe. For these reasons, among others, cloning for ‘reproductive purposes’ is banned in the UK and in most other countries, including the US. I believe that any country that values the safety and rights of the individual isn’t going to approve this kind of research in the foreseeable future. But who can predict what will happen in those countries where the rights of the State, or a despotic dictator, are regarded as more important than those of the individual? It has happened before – there is little doubt that the Nazis attempted to clone an race – and atrocities could feasibly happen again.
Cloning for a cure
“Well,” says my aunt when I went to visit one lunchtime, “why bother doing this type of research at all?” What she didn’t realise was there is another field of research using this technology that could be very important for future medicine: stem cell therapy. Stem cells have the amazing quality of being
able to grow into nearly any kind of tissue, such as liver, heart and blood. As such, they have the incredible potential to reconstruct just about any tissue in our body. Currently, researchers are using stem cells to develop treatments for heart disease, muscle damage, coeliac disease, leukaemia, diabetes and a host of other disorders, including Parkinson’s disease, stroke, dementia and brain tumours. One of the long-term goals of this research is difficult to believe: to take cells from a person who needs a treatment, convert them into stem cells, and then transplant them back into the same person so the cells can reconstruct the damaged or missing tissue. It is easy to see the incredible advantage this would have over existing treatments: there would be no need for donated organs and, since the new tissue is derived from the patient’s own cells, the immune system wouldn’t reject it. Until recently, stem cell therapy was something my aunt definitely didn’t approve of because the stem cells were derived from aborted foetuses or embryos made by the IVF (‘test tube baby’) method. Aunty believes a life becomes human, with full human rights, at the moment sperm meets egg, so destroying an embryo is a life ended. Nowadays, scientists can create these ‘magical’ stem cells from adult cells so these ethical minefields can be avoided for at least some research. A team at Oregon University have recently
reported a new way to obtain stem cells. They took a woman’s unfertilised eggs, removed the DNA, and replaced it with DNA from another adult donor. They then allowed them to grow until they could collect stem cells. It still remains to be seen if these ‘ethical’ stem cells will make more effective treatments than other stem cells. And even if this advancement fails to give useful treatments, scientists point out that this research helps us to better understand the process of early human development. When I explained, my aunt understood that this new method involves no act of conception; life is neither being created nor destroyed. She grasped the technology’s potential uses but decided to leave discussing cloning humans for another day. “Interesting conversation.” She said, her eyes twinkling, “So what shall we have for lunch – boiled eggs?” Read a summary of the research here.
BELOW: The taxidermied remains of Dolly the Sheep on display at the Chambers Street museum in Edinburgh.
ABOVE: A colony of human embryonic stem cells.
A lab scientist for many years, Julie Webb switched to science communication after working with her late father, Tom McGrath on Safe Delivery – an award-winning play about gene therapy. Since then she has got pretty good at translating research papers into English, organising events and walking on custard. Julie lives in the backwaters of Cambridgeshire, UK, with her husband, son and a small flock of chickens. Find Julie on the blogosphere here.