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24 March 1997

Cloning Update

John Gillot, who writes on scientific issues for LM magazine, is excited by the possibilities brought about by the onset of cloning but despairs at the hysterical reaction

Dolly Parton says she is 'honoured' that the world's first cloned animal has been named after her. There is, she says, no such thing as 'baaaaad publicity'. The public seem less certain about Dolly the lamb; and are downright frightened about what might follow. At a large debate on genetics called 'The People Decide', organised by the Wellcome Trust in London on March 19, even I was surprised that only 32 per cent of the 450 members of the public present thought Dolly should have been made. No vote was taken on whether we should clone humans, but I would have been surprised if anyone had voted for it given the temper of the discussion.

How should scientists respond to this wave of anxiety and downright opposition? As I argue in the forthcoming issue of LM Magazine, the important point is not to be defensive. Thankfully, some British parliamentarians, in the form of the House of Commons Science and Technology Committee, have taken a relatively (compared to some other countries) enlightened approach to the issue. In a report rushed out by 18 March, they are at pains to stress the importance of the work - calling it 'the most important development in United Kingdom science since the splitting of the atom' - and to combat the hysteria surrounding the discovery; a response which, they rightly argue, has helped to 'diminish' the work.

Where the report falls down is that it is more concerned to stress the broad scope of regulation which would restrict any moves toward human cloning than it is to explain why research relating to human cloning and the cloning of human embryos might be useful. As I explain in April's LM, cloning embryos could be useful therapeutically. Cloning human cell lines in isolation could also be useful. A case for this kind of work needs to be made publicly now if we are to turn around the kind of negative reaction expressed at the Wellcome debate. Stressing the extent of regulation might seem clever in the face of hysteria, but in the absence of a positive case being made for work in the human field, it has the unfortunate effect of merely confirming public suspicion that there is something terrible going on that they would rather see banned than regulated.

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