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09 JANUARY 1998

Human clones to order?

Juliet Tizzard argues that research into cloning humans could benefit us all

A little known scientist named Richard Seed has stepped this week from obscurity into the glare of the international media. Why? Because he told a Boston newspaper that he intends to set up a human cloning clinic in the United States in the near future. Dr Seed is physicist and is known by his colleagues for his eccentricity and his enjoyment in causing a stir. He has certainly provoked the amazement of the Western world. But what is more amazing is that such a peculiar character as Dr Seed can command the attention of the world's media in such a short space of time.

The reaction to Dr Seed's announcement of his plans to create human Dollys is reminiscent of the arrival of Dolly herself, almost exactly a year ago. Just as with the Dolly furore, this week's news has been met with calls for an immediate worldwide ban on human cloning before nuclear transfer using adult human cells actually becomes possible. Commentators in the United States are worried that Seed may successfully carry out his plans before Congress has had the opportunity to pass legislation outlawing human cloning.

Does the United States really need to outlaw human cloning? Dr Seed has a huge task ahead of him. Nuclear transfer is theoretically possible in humans, but Dolly the sheep was one of 277 cloned embryos, the rest of which either failed to develop or led to the death of the lambs soon after birth. With this kind of success (one which, incidentally, has prompted Dolly's pioneers to abandon the experiment), Dr Seed will have a hard time convincing any interested parties that it is worth their while participating in his programme. Even if he does, any cloning, now or in the future, will not produce the desired effect. Since the thing that really shapes us as humans is not so much our genes as our social experiences, cloning will never produce copies of existing people. Such a view only betrays a rather limited, biological view of what really makes us human.

Someone, if not Seed, will succeed with human cloning. But is this something we should worry about? Cloning is unlikely to do the world much harm. Far from damaging mankind, it has the potential to positively help it. The Roslin Institute, where Dolly was born, plans to use nuclear transfer technology to produce animals with human genes, like the recently announcement about Polly the sheep. Such animals can be used to produce medicines for human use, such as blood clotting agents for haemophiliacs. Other research possibilities include creating cloned human embryos and culturing cells from them that can be used to treat diseases such as Parkinson's in adults.

Whilst the outcry about Dr Seed continues, such important research as this remains untouched and any scientific interest in embarking upon it may dwindle in the face of public controversy. Worse, the irrational discussion around cloning leaves the impression that science in general, and reproductive biology in particular, brings us nothing but trouble and strife. Meanwhile, the idea that science can benefit mankind by treating, or even preventing, disease is smothered by the hysteria.

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