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
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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