• U.S.

The Case For Cloning

4 minute read
J. Madeleine Nash

An elderly man develops macular degeneration, a disease that destroys vision. To bolster his failing eyesight, he receives a transplant of healthy retinal tissue–cloned from his own cells and cultivated in a lab dish.

A baby girl is born free of the gene that causes Tay-Sachs disease, even though both her parents are carriers. The reason? In the embryonic cell from which she was cloned, the flawed gene was replaced with normal DNA.

These futuristic scenarios are not now part of the debate over human cloning, but they should be. Spurred by the fear that maverick physicist Richard Seed, or someone like him, will open a cloning clinic, lawmakers are rushing to enact broad restrictions against human cloning. To date, 19 European nations have signed an anticloning treaty. The Clinton Administration backs a proposal that would impose a five-year moratorium. House majority leader Dick Armey has thrown his weight behind a bill that would ban human cloning permanently, and at least 18 states are contemplating legislative action of their own. “This is the right thing to do, at the right time, for the sake of human dignity,” said Armey last week. “How can you put a statute of limitations on right and wrong?”

But hasty legislation could easily be too restrictive. Last year, for instance, Florida considered a law that would have barred the cloning of human DNA, a routine procedure in biomedical research. California passed badly worded legislation that temporarily bans not just human cloning but also a procedure that shows promise as a new treatment for infertility.

Most lawmakers are focused on a nightmarish vision in which billionaires and celebrities flood the world with genetic copies of themselves. But scientists say it’s unlikely that anyone is going to be churning out limited editions of Michael Jordan or Madeleine Albright. “Oh, it can be done,” says Dr. Mark Sauer, chief of reproductive endocrinology at Columbia University’s College of Physicians and Surgeons. “It’s just that the best people, who could do it, aren’t going to be doing it.”

Cloning individual human cells, however, is another matter. Biologists are already talking about harnessing for medical purposes the technique that produced the sheep called Dolly. They might, for example, obtain healthy cells from a patient with leukemia or a burn victim and then transfer the nucleus of each cell into an unfertilized egg from which the nucleus has been removed. Coddled in culture dishes, these embryonic clones–each genetically identical to the patient from which the nuclei came–would begin to divide.

The cells would not have to grow into a fetus, however. The addition of powerful growth factors could ensure that the clones develop only into specialized cells and tissue. For the leukemia patient, for example, the cloned cells could provide an infusion of fresh bone marrow, and for the burn victim, grafts of brand-new skin. Unlike cells from an unrelated donor, these cloned cells would incur no danger of rejection; patients would be spared the need to take powerful drugs to suppress the immune system. “Given its potential benefit,” says Dr. Robert Winston, a fertility expert at London’s Hammersmith Hospital, “I would argue that it would be unethical not to continue this line of research.”

There are dangers, but not the ones everyone’s talking about, according to Princeton University molecular biologist Lee Silver, author of Remaking Eden (Avon Books). Silver believes that cloning is the technology that will finally make it possible to apply genetic engineering to humans. First, parents will want to banish inherited diseases like Tay-Sachs. Then they will try to eliminate predispositions to alcoholism and obesity. In the end, says Silver, they will attempt to augment normal traits like intelligence and athletic prowess.

Cloning could be vital to that process. At present, introducing genes into chromosomes is very much a hit-or-miss proposition. Scientists might achieve the result they intend once in 20 times, making the procedure far too risky to perform on a human embryo. Through cloning, however, scientists could make 20 copies of the embryo they wished to modify, greatly boosting their chance of success.

Perhaps now would be a good time to ask ourselves which we fear more: that cloning will produce multiple copies of crazed despots, as in the film The Boys from Brazil; or that it will lead to the society portrayed in Gattaca, the recent science-fiction thriller in which genetic enhancement of a privileged few creates a rigid caste structure. By acting sensibly, we might avoid both traps.

–With reporting by David Bjerklie/New York and Dick Thompson/Washington

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