Two Western doctors recently announced plans to clone a human being. They say their team has unlimited funding as well as up to 700 couples willing to be part of the experiment, and they cite recent success in cloning cattle and other mammals. How close are we to this vision of biologically duplicating humans and what are the ethical ramifications? RFE/RL correspondent Jeremy Bransten examines the science and the debate behind cloning.
Prague, 15 March 2001 (RFE/RL) -- As soon as they announced their cloning plans in Rome last week, Italian fertility specialist Sverino Antinori and his U.S. colleague Panayiotis Zavos came under heavy fire. The criticisms came both from religious organizations and from their colleagues in the medical profession.
The Vatican labeled the idea of human cloning "grotesque," while ethicists and geneticists said the risks involved made any such procedure unacceptable. So far, the two would-be "Doctor Frankensteins" (a term derived from a 19th-century British novel in which a Dr. Frankenstein sought to create a human being outside the body) have not found a country willing to host their research project.
The first international agreement to prevent human cloning took effect this month when the Council of Europe reported that five nations had ratified a protocol to its Convention on Human Rights and Biomedicine, which specifically bans human cloning. Nineteen other member states have pledged to follow suit.
It is easy to understand why medical ethicists oppose human cloning. Creating what are called human "spares" opens a moral minefield that undermines the very principle on which democratic nations are founded -- that all men are created equal. Would clones be given the same rights as naturally born humans? Or would they be controlled in their development by their makers?
The idea of creating a second category of humans to serve our needs clearly offends the religiously minded and disturbs most non-believers. But is it scientifically possible?
With the exception of the sperm and egg, every animal or human cell contains all of the genetic material in its DNA to create an exact clone of the original body.
Doctors Zavos and Antinori say cloning humans should be similar to cloning Dolly, the Scottish sheep. In that experiment, DNA from an adult animal's skin was injected into a surrogate mother's egg, or embryo, whose own genetic material had been removed. The sheep that was born, Dolly, was in essence a delayed twin of its DNA donor -- made of the same genetic material. Theoretically, couples unable to conceive could use this method to have offspring that would be identical to one of the parents.
What has ethicists so upset about applying DNA-cloning techniques to humans is that the failure rate is extremely high. In the case of Dolly, it took 277 attempts -- 277 wasted embryos -- to achieve the birth of one sheep. Similar failure rates have been registered in later cow and monkey cloning experiments, with the surrogate mother's life at risk from spontaneously aborted fetuses.
Paul Root Wolpe, professor of Bioethics at the University of Pennsylvania, tells RFE/RL it would be highly irresponsible to attempt this on human beings:
"We've cloned only a handful of animals, only a handful of times. The idea that we should do something a couple of times in sheep, once or twice in a monkey, a few times in cows and then we're ready to do it on human beings, violates virtually every principle of safety in human experimentation."
In addition, although Dolly appears to be a normal sheep, there are concerns about the true state of her health. Cells seem to have a definite life span built into them. Dolly was created using a cell from a six-year-old animal -- mid-life for a sheep. It thus appears that Dolly's cells are also middle-aged and scientists now expect her to have a reduced life expectancy. Wolpe says:
"We don't really know how normal cloned animals are. They come from cells that are much older than the cells that offspring usually come from. There could be problems related to that. We don't know how it's going to affect things like neural development. We know, for example, that cloned animals are larger than their naturally born siblings. We don't know why that is. I think it is extraordinarily problematic, ethically and morally, to be cloning human beings at this point."
For now, human reproductive cloning appears to remain beyond the pale of mainstream science. But the cloning of cells continues apace in laboratories around the world. Doctors say this research could one day provide cures for many degenerative diseases.
In January, Britain's House of Lords voted to permit the cloning and maintenance of human embryos up to 14 days old for medical experiments. The key benefit of working with embryos is that they are made up of what are known as "stem cells," which are considered the parents of all the body's cells. As the embryo evolves, its stem cells start specializing to create the nervous system, spine and other features of the fetus.
Scientists hope that by extracting stem cells from embryos before they start to specialize, their growth can be directed in a laboratory to become any desired cell or tissue type. Wolpe says the practical applications could be far-reaching:
"We're talking about the potential to grow skin cells for skin grafts, to grow pancreatic cells that produce insulin to be transplanted into patients who have diabetes. Eventually perhaps, we're talking about the ability to grow complete organs for transplantation. We're talking about the ability to direct stem cells to grow into marrow cells or blood cells for people with a variety of cancers, such as leukemia, perhaps hepatitis. So, we're unlocking the ability of cells to turn into virtually every tissue in the body. If we can control that mechanism, the potential for healing is virtually unlimited."
Robin Lovell-Badge heads the development genetics program at Britain's National Institute for Medical Research. He says advances in stem-cell research may enable doctors in future to cut down on organ transplants, which can be risky and have a high rejection rate. Stem cells may be able to help where transplants are simply not possible.
"There are in fact many more diseases that could be treated just by putting cells in than can be treated by organ transplants. You can't really do an organ transplant for the brain but you could in theory cure some diseases of the brain by putting back specific cells to replace those that are defective. And the classic example of that would be Parkinson's disease."
Efforts to treat Parkinson's disease with stem cells suffered a setback this month, when U.S. doctors reported that an initial clinical study involving 20 patients had not yielded the desired results. In 15 percent of patients, the cells actually grew too quickly and produced extra quantities of a chemical that controls movement, worsening patients' motor coordination problems. Nevertheless, doctors are optimistic that once the process is better understood, they will be able to direct stem-cell growth in more beneficial ways.
Lovell-Badge says Britain has embarked on the right course by legalizing embryo research and cloning -- within strict limits.
"We have the legal framework and the laws which allow it to be conducted in a very closely controlled and monitored way -- which I personally think is the way to do this. In other countries, for example the U.S., you have a very split situation, so if you are funded from the federal government, you cannot do any research in this area at all. But if you have private funding, say [by] a company, then you can essentially do whatever you like."
At the University of Pennsylvania, Wolpe says the United States needs to change its laws governing genetic research to eliminate this inconsistency and discourage abuses. As he puts it, despite the strict ban on stem-cell research in government-funded labs, private laboratories in the U.S. are "less-regulated than bowling alleys or liquor stores."
Wolpe acknowledges that a whole new set of ethical issues will have to be decided as scientific knowledge advances. In decades to come, doctors may be able to bio-engineer embryos for certain traits. Although such a technique could halt the spread of hereditary diseases, it could also encourage parents to strive for "perfect" babies.
But according to Wolpe, of more immediate concern than eugenics, is who will have access to the basic fruits of medical research?
"The bigger questions for us right now are: Who are we going to allow to do these things and what kinds of guidelines are we going to put around them? And then, on the other side of it, who's going to have access to these technologies? They're going to be very, very expensive at the beginning. And what's going to happen at the beginning is they'll be used for curing genetic and other types of diseases. Is it only going to be the wealthy and the wealthy parts of the world who will have access to these technologies?"
As with past medical advances, it seems ethicists will have to concern themselves with more than just the science.