Ten years since their first success, cloning experts operate in an ethical no man's land
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Charmayne James and her horse, Scamper, won 10 world championships in barrel racing before James retired to focus on her horse-breeding business. In the pre-cloning days, James could not have bred the horse because he was castrated. But cloning gave her access to Scamper's otherwise off-limits, champion genes. For $150,000, the company ViaGen made Clayton, a horse genetically identical to Scamper but able to procreate.
James is one of many satisfied customers whose stories ViaGen relates on its website. The company advertises its cloning services to breeders who want to preserve the superior genes of cattle, horses, and pigs. It even gives a price list and offers the equivalent of "frequent cloner discounts"-$15,000 for the first copy of a cow, $12,500 for the second, and so on.
This year marks the 10-year anniversary of the scientific paper announcing the birth of Dolly the sheep, the first clone of an adult mammal. Since Dolly, who died four years ago, scientists have used the same technique that produced her to clone cows, horses, cats, pigs, dogs, mice, and other mammals. As evidence of the success of animal cloning, the FDA at the end of December unveiled a proposal to allow producers to sell meat and milk from the offspring of cloned animals, which the organization determined are safe to eat. The proposal could be adopted later this year.
But despite the thriving animal cloning industry she inspired, Dolly is best remembered for raising the burning question: Should we clone human beings?
The advent of human embryonic stem-cell research gave people a reason to answer yes. Some scientists, including the one who engineered Dolly, argue that cloned embryos could provide a source of stem cells to cure devastating diseases like Parkinson's and Alzheimer's. That hope led the people who made Dolly to move out of the barns and back into the labs, even though the field of animal cloning still had much to offer humans.
Five years after Dolly was born, the University of Missouri's Randall Prather was the first researcher to clone a special type of genetically modified pig. His modification stripped pig cells of a coating that allowed the human immune system to identify them as foreign. The advance might one day help meet the human demand for transplant organs using pig tissue.
Earlier in his career, Prather published a paper claiming that animal cloning is morally acceptable under the "cultural mandate" in Genesis 1, in which God gave Adam and Eve dominion over creation. Like other reproductive biologists of the day, many of whom did not share his biblical worldview, Prather predicted that discoveries from animal cloning would prove a boon to mankind.
"I see tremendous application to feed an ever-growing population and to alleviate human suffering by using pigs as a model or a tool to accomplish this goal," Prather told WORLD.
During the past two decades, Prather collaborated with some of the world's best-known reproductive biologists, including Ian Wilmut and Gerald P. Schatten of the University of Pittsburgh. Both Wilmut and Schatten have since entered the field of human embryonic stem-cell research.
That's where Prather parts ways. Many scientists believe that stem cells from embryos could cure diseases by producing healthy tissue for transplants. If stem cells were taken from patients' clones, they argue, those patients' bodies would not reject the transplants because the tissue would contain their own DNA. But related research requires experimenting on and destroying human embryos, something Prather refuses to do.
Still, more scientists enter the field of human embryo cloning and research each year, many of them disregarding the accepted order of biological research: animals before humans. Scientists have yet to achieve successful cures using embryonic stem cells in animals. Prather said human embryonic stem cells have not been subjected to the same standards of proof that were once required for embryonic stem cells from animals.
In spite of the shaky science, researchers have much to gain by upgrading from animal to human research, Prather said: "There's so much money available."
Hwang Woo-Suk of South Korea became an international celebrity when he became the first scientist to claim he had succeeded in cloning a human embryo and extracting its stem cells. Hwang received close to $40 million in private and government funding. Korean Air awarded him and his wife free travel for 10 years. An online fandom was born, complete with swooning young women who offered their eggs for his research. Wilmut, Schatten, and other admirers from around the world flew to Seoul to visit his laboratory. Schatten co-authored the 2005 paper that announced Hwang's breakthrough in the journal Science.
But as quickly as it rose, Hwang's star crashed to earth. In November 2005, Schatten denounced his affiliation with Hwang and accused the South Korean of ethical breaches. Over the next few months, the researcher's success unraveled amidst accusations, investigations, and ultimately Hwang's own confession that he had faked his results. Seoul National University's final report on Hwang's deception concluded that he probably had succeeded in cloning human embryos but not in extracting their stem cells.
Evangelical bioethicists now use the Hwang scandal as an example of the temptations and motives that can drive human cloning research.
"We live now in a very consumer-driven, capitalist, scientific era where whoever gets there first and patents a new therapy or drug stands not only to make a mark, but they also stand to make a fortune," said C. Ben Mitchell, director of the Center for Bioethics and Human Dignity.
Wilmut has expressed a sympathetic desire to help disease sufferers like his own father, who died of diabetes, but he also does not deny his personal lust for control over nature. "I want to be able to change my destiny rather than be condemned to a particular fate," Wilmut wrote in his recent book, After Dolly: The Uses and Misuses of Human Cloning (W.W. Norton, 2006). Under potential "uses," he lists harvesting stem cells from cloned embryos to treat diseases, correcting genetic anomalies in embryos before implantation in the uterus, and helping infertile couples have children by using stem cells to produce viable sperm and eggs. Really, the only act Wilmut counts as a "misuse" is cloning for cloning's sake, "the ultimate act of vanity."
In the lab, Wilmut's uses and misuses of cloning look exactly the same until a scientist decides whether to put the embryo into a petri dish or a uterus. "No matter how slippery that slope," he writes, "it is easy to draw a well-defined line on it in this particular case. Society can have the good and reject the bad."
Prather's view is different: Good can come from animal cloning without the need to experiment on embryos. In his experiments on pigs, he has identified a gene that makes an enzyme that opens blood vessels and helps prevent heart disease. He has developed fluorescent cells that can be used as markers in genetic experiments. He's working on a pig model of the disease cystic fibrosis so scientists do not have to experiment on children to find a cure.
Even Prather's work is arguably a slippery slope since it lays the foundation for similar experiments on human embryos. Some students he has trained have gone on to do embryonic stem-cell research. But Prather emphasizes that his career has been guided by conclusions he drew from the Bible as a post-doctoral fellow almost 20 years ago. "I dealt with it then and have stayed the course," he said.