SEND IN THE CLONES?

by David Sisler

"Hello, Dolly!" the headlines shouted, and for a few moments our national attention was distracted from court room spectacles, sexual harassment claims, political sleep-ins, and White House denials which continually attempt to pull the wool over our eyes. Our national attention span, being just slightly shorter than the life span of the fruit fly, Dolly, the unique sheep, and the reason she vaulted into world-wide attention, has quietly disappeared from the front pages. Right back where she belongs? I do not think so.

In an unprecedented feat, Scottish scientists cloned an adult mammal by inserting DNA from a sheep's utter which contains both the male and female genetic parts into an egg, implanted it into a surrogate mother and raised it to adulthood. The healthy, seven-month-old sheep is an exact genetic duplicate of the animal from which the single cell was taken. Dolly's birth last summer was the end result of 23 years of work by Dr. Ian Wilmut of the Roslin Institute, Edinburgh, Scotland.

Once the exclusive providence of fiction writers Aldous Huxley's Brave New World, Ira Levin's The Boys from Brazil, and Nancy Freedman's Joshua, Son of None cloning is now open territory for not only scientists, but investment brokers as well.

Pioneering ground work was laid in 1980, not in the laboratory, but in the hallowed halls of justice when the United States Supreme court said that the Constitution does not prohibit the patenting of living creatures. The argument which set the stage was a case concerning the patent of a single-celled bacterium developed to clean up oil spills. In just under two decades, the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office has granted patents on the genes used to produce 29 different types of genetically altered animals, including 23 mice, one rabbit, one sheep, one rat, one bird, one fish, and a worm. A spokeswoman for the Patent Office said the animals are used primarily in research.

Several roadblocks to commercial development of new medical and biological technologies have been established around the world. The European Community currently prohibits anyone from patenting genetically altered animals. There are, however, few legal obstacles to cloning, including the cloning of humans in the U.S. Presently, federal law does prohibit federal funds from being used to pay for human embryo research.

Nevertheless, the techniques which Dr. Wilmut and his colleagues used can be duplicated in animals by virtually any competent scientist. Dream biotech applications are being touted as the ultimate end of the Roslin Institute research.

Genetically engineered and cloned cows may be able to produce 40,000 pounds of milk per year instead of the more normal 30,000 pounds.

Specially designed pigs would be extremely valuable for use in human organ transplant surgery. Their organs are roughly the same size as our own and through genetic engineering, rejection of the transplanted organs could be eliminated.

Blood-clotting factors, vital in the treatment of hemophilia could be produced. Through cloning, the protein anti-tripsin is a component in sheep's blood, important in the treatment of cystic fibrosis and emphysema, would be available in unadulterated supply.

Doctors hope that by being able to study the multiple embryos developed through cloning, they can determine the causes of spontaneous abortions.

Oncologists believe that embryonic study will advance understanding of the rapid cell growth of cancer.

It all sounds so good, until you listen to scientists like Dr. Gary Hodgen. The president of the Jones Institute for Reproductive Medicine at the Eastern Virginia Medical School said, "The idea of cloning humans is a distasteful idea. However, it is justifiable where the woman may be able to provide only one or two embryos. On a very qualified scale, I think this is ethically acceptable and scientifically important." And so it begins.

A famous fictional doctor, who contemplated, with not a little hesitation, the genesis of a different world-changing development, asked, "Dear, Lord. Do you think we are smart enough to use it?" In the days after the announcement of Dolly's cloning, one phrase was repeated frequently: "Pandora's box is open. There is no going back." True, but where is the line to be drawn? What are the limits? Do we rush heedlessly ahead with all of the potential good applications and ignore the possibility that someone may wish to clone himself, or his children, just in case he needs, say, spare parts?

Creation of new life was once the sole prerogative of Almighty God. When He saw everything that He had made, He decreed it, "Very good!" The ambition to be like God caused the fall of a proud angel, of a disobedient husband and wife, and all of human kind. Where will this new aspiration lead?

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Published in the Augusta Chronicle 3/8/97

Copyright 1997 by David Sisler. All Rights Reserved.

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