Quests build to clone humans

Cloning humans is banned in 23 countries. But scientists are pushing the technology forward.

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Reported by staff writers Peter N. Spotts in Boston, Peter Ford in Paris, Ruth Walker in Toronto, and Ilene R. Prusher in Tokyo; with contributions from Shai Oster in Beijing, Lucian Kim in London, and Shawn Donnan in Sydney. Written by Peter N. Spotts.

Panayiotis Zavos and Severino Antinori are looking for a few talented scientists.

Next month, the University of Kentucky professor and the Italian fertility clinic doctor plan to hold a meeting in Rome to jump-start one of the most controversial projects researchers have ever proposed: to clone whole human beings as a way to help infertile couples have children.

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The two doctors are not the first to publicly declare their intention to clone humans. In the four years since Scottish researchers presented Dolly, a cloned ewe, a US physicist and a UFO sect based in Canada have announced similar plans.

But the two researchers represent what some say is the most credible challenge yet to a consensus in most countries that cloning humans should be banned. Their move comes as a number of nations are considering easing their regulations on the use of cloning in biomedical research - and as the quest to clone humans gathers momentum.

"There are a lot of people highly motivated" to be the first to clone a human," says Gregory Stock, director of the program in medicine, technology, and society at the University of California at Los Angeles. The duo's plans "are forcing us to look at reality and to acknowledge that this is going to happen."

As countries draw up their regulations, they're drawing a distinction between reproductive cloning, in which a child is brought to term, and cloning for medical research. At least 23 countries ban reproductive cloning. But barriers to cloning for medical or "therapeutic" research are beginning to crumble as biomedical scientists make politically persuasive cases for cloning of human embryos under tightly circumscribed conditions.

On Jan. 22, Britain became the first country to permit researchers to clone human embryos for medical research. Scientists are interested in mining the embryos for their stem cells, a common foundation from which all the cell types in an adult are said to emerge. Researchers say these cells are potentially powerful tools for studying human development, treating disease, and regenerating organs and tissue.

Britain's new law, which covers research in corporate as well as government labs, prohibits researchers from allowing the embryos to develop beyond their first 14 days. Moreover, embryos could be used only under government license. The new regulations "provide scientists with a very clear ethical and moral framework," says Harry Griffin, associate director of the Roslin Institute in Edinburgh, Scotland, where Dolly was cloned.

He adds that he expects an explicit ban on reproductive cloning. "There is no chance that reproductive cloning will be allowed in the UK or any other European country," he says.

While the US shows no signs of ending it's ban on federal funding for research that results in the destruction of a human embryo, Britain's law is likely to be seen as a model by other countries.

Australia, Canada look to British precedent

For more than a year, a parliamentary committee in Australia has been sorting through the pros and cons of cloning for medical research. It is expected to issue its recommendations next month.

"The developments in Britain are important," says John White, secretary for science policy at the Australian Academy of Science in Canberra. "We clearly oppose cloning whole human beings. There are too many troubling ethical and moral issues. But therapeutic cloning is something we believe should be considered."

In Canada, no laws govern reproductive and genetic technologies, although human cloning has been included in a six-year-old voluntary moratorium on nine "problematic" technologies. The Canadian Institute for Health Research is expected to release a report on stem-cell research in the next couple of weeks.

Britain's legislation "will certainly be looked at here" as a potential model for Canadian legislation, says Margaret Somerville, founder of the McGill Centre for Medicine, Ethics, and Law in Montreal.

In Europe, the Council of Europe has drawn up a Convention on Human Rights and Biomedicine, which rejects the notion of cloning humans but leaves the door open for research involving "therapeutic cloning." As countries there debate the convention's provisions, economics exerts a none-too-subtle influence on the discussion, analysts say.

"Governments are under pressure commercially to approve the creation of human clones for therapeutic purposes as rapidly as possible," says Patrick Dixon, a prominent British doctor and futurologist. "Key industry players had indicated they would move their research bases out of the UK unless the government agreed ... and now we will see this ripple spread out across the whole of Europe."

All this troubles Eija-Riitta Korhola, a conservative member of the European Parliament from Finland who says she worries that buying the British model and accepting therapeutic cloning represents the summit of a slippery slope.

"If we reject reproductive cloning but accept therapeutic cloning, we should know why and clearly explain our ethical ground for making a distinction," she says. "Otherwise we open the door to all kinds of cloning."

A cloned human in 18 months?

Zavos's and Antinori's recent announcement that they would clone a human at facilities in an unnamed Mediterranean country indicates some researchers are pushing ahead despite bans on the procedure.

Professor Antinori, as director of a fertility clinic in Rome, has already made headlines by helping older British women - one 63, another 59 - to have babies.

Dr. Zavos, who runs a fertility clinic in Lexington in addition to serving as a professor of animal science at the University of Kentucky, has indicated that the two could be ready to implant a cloned embryo in a woman within the next 18 months.

This prospect troubles George Annas, who heads the health-law department at Boston University's Schools of Medicine and Public Health. "There is no moral justification to clone human beings," he says. "If the human species was dying and cloning was the only way to ensure the survival of the species, then sure."

He notes that when biotech companies clone sheep or cattle, the goal is to produce "improved" offspring, displaying traits they wouldn't if conceived normally. Cloning is a more efficient means of introducing novel genetic traits than other techniques, he says, adding that he worries that in the long term, cloning will become a tool for engineering "improved" humans as well.

In China, a ban on all genetic engineering was lifted in the early 1980s. Since then, most research has focused on genetically modified food. But the government-funded Human Tissues Research and Development Center in Shanghai now claims to be the largest institute in the world researching how to use stem cells to generate organs like a heart, lungs, or liver for transplant. "We need to push harder on tissue engineering," says Chen Zhagliang, vice president of the prestigious Beijing University and a leading researcher of genetically modified crops. He hopes that cloning could help produce cheap transplants to improve quality of life among this still largely rural and poor country.

"Despite England's decision, there isn't a controversy [about human cloning]," says Professor Chen. "There's no real discussion. We know it's wrong and not natural."

In Japan, a law passed in November makes cloning humans a crime, punishable by up to 10 years in prison and 10 million yen ($87,000) in fines. Yet, local media say that various Japanese proponents are interested in teaming up with international partners to pursue research into human cloning. The pro-cloning argument in Japan centers around the low birth rate, and one of the world's fastest-declining populations.

Still, Hiroshi Imai, a professor at Kyoto University, says that "before you think about ethics, you have to think about cloning techniques," noting that the shortcomings that have appeared in cloning animals are likely to appear in cloning humans as well.

Technical challenges that can make the process dangerous to cloned offspring, and the mother, include fetuses that are larger than normal and a low survival rate. "Those people with experience in cloning animals are well aware that the current technology is unsafe. It's only those people without that experience who are enthusiastic about cloning a child," says Griffin in Scotland.

Faced with those shortcomings and given the range of techniques that exists to help infertile couples, it would be unethical - even with such standard practices as "informed consent" on the part of patients - to reproduce humans through cloning, BU's Dr. Annas concludes.

Carl Feldbaum, president of the Biotechnology Industry Organization in Washington, holds that from the industry's standpoint, attempting to clone humans is a lose-lose proposition. Whether Zovas and Antinori succeed or fail, he says, their work is likely to result in a backlash against mainstream biomedical research.

Following the announcement that scientists had cloned Dolly, state governments across the US tried to enact bans on cloning. But, he says, many bills - particularly in Florida and New Jersey - were so poorly drafted that they would have brought the biomedical research in those states to a grinding halt. Those battles, he says, might have to be fought all over again if efforts to clone entire humans move forward.

Beyond the potential political battles cloning would ignite are a paucity of reasons for doing it, at least for now, he says.

"It's a cruel hoax" to allow people to believe that they are going to be able to clone a child identical to one they may have lost, he says. A cloned child would be genetically identical to the one lost, but in every other respect, the child would be a unique individual whose development could be threatened by parents with unrealistic expectations for the child's personality and other traits.

Some ethicists note that cloning is another example of scientific developments outstripping society's timetable for weighing the implications of those developments. "Ethics time lags science time, and that's nobody's fault," says McGill University's Dr. Somerville. Complex issues require a "sedimentation of values," she suggests. "You need to be able to talk to your cab driver about these things ... or your hairdresser."

Yet others see the Zovas-Antinori plan as a part of the normal process by which society weighs its technological options. "It's important to understand that even if they are successful, it doesn't mean that cloning will be a reproductive option that's generally available," says UCLA's Dr. Stock.

He notes that the time, money, and emotional ups and downs that make current fertility treatments a last resort also would apply to cloning. "The distance between research and clinical applications is substantial. The liability issues alone are enormous."

"This is a healthy part of the process of coming to grips with these issues," he says. "It's better for this to be done in the open than to be done underground."

(c) Copyright 2001. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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