INDEPTH: GENETICS AND REPRODUCTION|
CBC News Online | February 12, 2004
Dolly, the world's most famous clone
Human cloning is perhaps the most controversial reproductive technology, raising fears in people's minds of armies of clones or exact copies of people long dead.
But most scientists working in human cloning are not concerned with making babies, but with creating stem cells that can be used to treat genetic diseases.
In February 2004, South Korean scientists became the first to clone human embryos, creating 30 early-stage embryos from more than 200 eggs.
The Seoul scientists harvested a colony of stem cells from one of the embryos they created. They credited their success to acquiring very fresh eggs from volunteers and to gentle handling of the genetic material inside the cells to be cloned.
They said their goal is to grow replacement tissue for patients with genetic diseases, such as diabetes and Parkinson's disease, from their own cells so that their bodies are less likely to reject the tissue.
The announcement followed a series of earlier cloning experiments by other researchers.
On December 27, 2002, Clonaid, the self-proclaimed "first human cloning company," said they had successfully cloned a human baby girl, although their claims were met with considerable skepticism.
The Raelians, a religious sect that believes life on Earth was created by extraterrestrials, established Clonaid in 1997.
Brigitte Boisselier, a chemist and the CEO of Clonaid, said the girl, named Eve, was "very healthy" and is the clone of a 31-year-old American woman, who resorted to cloning because her husband is infertile.
But Boisselier didn't offer DNA evidence to verify whether the baby girl is a clone.
Cloning experts were skeptical about the claim, saying cloning a human is technically demanding and the group lacks the skills to do it.
In November 2001, an American company announced it had cloned the first human embryo using the same technique that produced Dolly the sheep back in 1996.
The private company, Advanced Cell Technologies, hopes to use the procedure to isolate stem cells and help patients with a wide range of medical problems. Stem cells are cells that haven't matured to perform specialized functions, which means they still can be programmed to do anything.
The human embryo cloning experiments failed to produce therapeutic stem cells because the embryos did not divide enough times. Theoretically, the cloned embryos could provide a perfect match for a patient and prevent rejection problems.
Unlike the Raelians, most scientists do not intend to use these technologies to clone humans. Some, however, are considering cloning humans for reproductive purposes. In March 2001, three scientists gathered in Rome said they're going ahead with human cloning, no matter what anyone says.
They said their intention is to help infertile couples to have children.
"Some people say we are going to clone the world, but this isn't true," Italian Severino Antinori, one of the doctors, said at a news conference. "We're talking science, we're not here to create a fuss."
The team plans to combine cells (from either the man or the woman) with one of the woman's eggs, which has been stripped of its genetic material. When the cells form an embryo, the scientists would implant the embryo in the woman's uterus. The embryo would then take its "natural" course and develop into a fetus and then a baby a baby that would have only one biological parent.
The Raelians say they used a similar technique to create Eve.
The idea that we may one day clone a human being has been a part of science fiction and scientific debate for generations.
However, it wasn't until 1997, when a team in Scotland announced it had cloned the first adult mammal, the now-famous Dolly the sheep, that the world really changed the way it thought about human cloning. Those who were previously asking whether it could be done were now asking when it would be done.
But there's still the question of whether it should be done. And the ethical issues that surround human cloning can be as complicated as the science itself.
On the one side, there are religious groups and other organizations that say human cloning is wrong. Period.
Sweater knit from cloned Dolly's wool
Some are against cloning for the same reason they're against abortion and euthanasia because all human life is valuable and destroying embryos is equal to murder. (Some scientists want to use embryos in medical research because they contain stem cells.)
Cloning also raises health concerns. Researchers have found that cloned mammals tend to die soon after birth. Those that survive often show genetic abnormalities that cause problems to their tissues and organs. Dolly the sheep, for example, aged faster than normal. She developed premature arthritis and progressive lung disease. Dolly, 6, was euthanized in February 2003; sheep normally live to about age 12.
Experts, including those at Advanced Cell Technologies, say it is irresponsible to clone humans unless the safety concerns are worked out.
These are just some of the arguments.
Other anti-cloning advocates say we shouldn't allow human cloning because it infringes on one of the things we value most, our individuality.
There are social implications, too. What if someone cloned Albert Einstein or Joan of Arc or even someone they knew, like their dead child or parent? What kind of life would that person have trying to live up to the expectation that they will become as accomplished or do the same things as their genetic counterpart?
Einsteins for all?
And then there are those who say allowing cloning would make way for the Frankenstein-like eugenics projects or the vast armies of genetically engineered soldiers that you see in the movies or read about in comic books.
This is not to say these arguments should be taken lightly. In fact, the international community has taken human cloning very seriously. Of those countries that have adopted laws to deal with reproductive technologies, the majority France, Germany and Australia for example have chosen to outlaw human cloning altogether to avoid such disasters.
The United States was one of the first to react to the Dolly announcement with President Bill Clinton banning the use of federal funds for human cloning research. The U.S. still has no national law to prevent private companies from doing such work, though it is illegal in some states.
Canada has no cloning laws either.
Cloning laws would fall under the same act that would cover other reproductive technologies, such as in vitro fertilization, sperm donation and genetic manipulation.
In 1989, the federal government created a royal commission to look at new reproductive technologies, which resulted in the government placing a voluntary moratorium on human embryo cloning. But so far, attempts to pass an anti-cloning law have failed.
That's partly because of who makes up the other side of the argument: the scientists who say we shouldn't be so quick to dismiss the benefits of human cloning.
Britain destroys human embryos after 14 days
Human cloning doesn't necessarily mean duplicating entire people. It also includes cloning parts of humans, cells, for example, that scientists say would be a great boost for medical science.
People with severe burns could grow back their own skin. People who need a new organ could get one that's guaranteed to be genetically compatible. And what about growing entire new limbs to replace those that have been severed in an accident?
The potential for human cloning is so great, scientists say it would be premature to stop research now, especially seeing as the world is just beginning to understand the possible applications of the technology.
This is why Britain, which had earlier passed a law banning human cloning, announced in January 2001 that it would now allow scientists to clone human embryos for medical research. The embryos must be destroyed by the time they are 14 days old, before the cells begin to change and form specific parts of the body.
One of the first cloning experiments took place In December 1998. Scientists at the Infertility Clinic at Kyeonghee University in South Korea announced they had cloned the world's first human embryo, but the work was not published in a scientific journal.
The team allowed the embryo to divide itself into four cells the stage when a test tube embryo is usually placed back in the uterus where it develops into a fetus before destroying it. Their goal is to clone genetically identical organs for human transplant.
No matter what governments do to prevent human cloning, and no matter what position you take on the issue, it's hard to ignore the reality that there are already people out there who say they're the first to clone a human being.