Guru Magazine - - CONTENTS - JULIE WEBB

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.

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