“To be or not to be” In the last fifty years new forms of technology have been the center of attention for every human being. It seems that every day scientists come up with some new, perhaps even controversial, and exciting ways to improve the quality of life. These new technologies affect every aspect of life, as we know it. One such technology is the research being done in the area of cloning. Cloning is the production of one or more cells, individual plants, or animals that are genetically identical to another cell, plant or animal. Although the first steps forward in cloning have brought a storm of protest, the experimental research should be studied to prolong the existence of human life.
In February 1997, the Roslin Institute in Scotland, a farm animal research facility, announced that it had succeeded in cloning a sheep from an adult cell. The cloned sheep, Dolly, made headlines around that world and launched a fierce debate over the potential uses for this technology. The breakthrough showed for the first time that genetic information encoded in the DNA of an adult cell could be “reset” and made young again. Once reset, the cell with rejuvenated DNA could produce all of the cells needed to grow a complete organism.
Since Dolly, much has happened. In the United States, the National Bioethics Advisory Commission issued a report calling for federal legislation to ban human cloning for three to five years because of the moral dangers of cloning. President Clinton imposed a ban on all federally funded cloning research. Other European countries also adopted a similar ban. The misconceptions of cloning have risen from the lack of knowledge about the discoveries. Most people do not understand the basic principles of cloning, and are likely to make rash generalizations about whether cloning is natural or not. Other misconceptions focus on the societal problems resulting from cloning. Many of these misconceptions are only valid in a society without regulations or laws of any kind. People tend to forget that along with new technological developments come rules and guidelines to prevent the nightmarish scenarios that many believe will come true. Each of these misconceptions results from a distortion of the truth. Yet Congress seems hell-bent on stopping the medical advances that cloning can make possible. Congress is responding to the polls that show most Americans are opposed to cloning. But carelessly crafted legislation would restrict not only research leading to the birth of a cloned human but the research leading to cures for cancer, genetic disease treatments, and more successful organ transplantations.
The treatment for Leukemia, a cancer in which the bone marrow overproduces white blood cells, could be revolutionized. Today, one of the more successful treatments involves the destruction of a patient’s bone marrow through chemotherapy and the transplantation of healthy marrow cells taken from a closely matched donor. The problem is that many leukemia patients die because they can’t find appropriate donors. With cloning, healthy marrow cells that are perfect genetic matches for patients could be created from the patient’s own cells. Doctors could take a skin cell nucleus and implant it in an enucleated human egg, resetting the cell’s DNA. Once reset, the cell could become an embryonic stem (ES) cell. After the ES cells begin to divide, they could be treated with hormones that would cause them to develop into marrow cells, which could then be returned to the patients. Dame Anne McLaren, head of the Wellcome Institute of Cancer and Developmental Biology at Cambridge, says that if successful, the technique could be extended to other patients suffering from rare disorders where currently bone marrow transplants offer the only hope of a cure.
Another strong supportive argument for cloning research is in the area of genetic disease treatments. Doctors at the Roslin Institute have discovered that by introducing human genes into other organisms, such as pigs or sheep, these transgenic animals can produce human proteins. A transgenic animal is an animal whose hereditary traits have been permanently altered by genetic engineering techniques leading to an incorporation of new genes or inactivation of gene sequences. Cloned animals and transgenic animals as such have nothing to do with each other. However, by combining genetic engineering and cloning techniques it is possible to make the initial genetic engineering experiments in cell culture and then later use the cloning technology to make the transgenic animal. This way cloning may allow a safer production of transgenic animals with a greater certainty of a positive result, and with the use of fewer animals. The reason for this is that the initial genetic engineering (application of transgenic technology) may be applied to cell cultures not to living animals and that cloning then would be the tool to bring the results into living animals. These animals can be used as “drug factories,” producing human proteins in its milk. Sheep have been altered to produce alpha-1-antitrypsin, a drug that is used to treat cystic fibrosis. Insulin, which is used to treat diabetes, is another product that can be produced by such animals. Cloning research will not only be able to treat genetic diseases, it may one day prevent it.
Through cloning, organ transplantion may become a more successful process. Although organ transplantation is a common occurrence, a global shortage of human organs for transplantations has led to escalating waiting lists for life saving transplants of hearts, kidneys, livers and other organs. In the US, for example, more than 62,000 patients are now waiting to receive donated organs. A new name is added to the list every 16 minutes and every day 11 people die waiting according to government statistics. This has led the worldwide transplant community to review the options for organ procurement. Xenotransplantation, transplanting organs from one species to another, provides a solution to organ shortages. PPL Therapeutics, in Scotland, announced on March 5th, 2000, that five piglets, all healthy, were born as a result of cloning. The successful cloning of these pigs is a major step in achieving PPL’s objectives. It opens the door to making modified pigs whose organs and cells can be successfully transplanted into humans, the only near term solution to solving the worldwide organ shortage crisis.
Human cloning is not the issue; it is merely a threat to the continuation of cloning research. Supporters of cloning feel that with the careful continuation of research, the technological benefits of cloning clearly outweigh the possible social consequences. The applications, which you have seen are not nightmarish or inhumane, but will only improve the overall quality of science and life. So it is up to us as a society to write our state senators in support of cloning research. Just think about the human consequences of banning such a technology – the deaths and the possible cure for diseases that would result from imposing limits on cloning discoveries and advances. The National Bioethics Advisory Commission suggests that cloning should be banned on the grounds that it is not yet “safe” for our society. But their decision is based on the fact that Dolly, for example, was born after 277 attempts, which it argued is too high of a failure rate. But is it really? Lee Silver, a professor in molecular biology, ecology, and evolutionary biology at Princeton University, says that hundreds of human eggs and embryos were used before the birth of the first test-tube baby in 1978. Dolly was actually the beneficiary of well-established human in vitro fertilization technology. In the 277 attempts, only 29 of the fused cells actually became embryos, which were implanted in 13 ewes, of which only one became pregnant and gave birth. In a sense, this was a perfect success rate, since the only pregnancy resulted in a healthy birth. It is certainly far superior to the success rates achieved in early human in vitro fertilization efforts. Silver claims that reproductive cloning is no more dangerous than current human IVF procedures, which result in fewer birth defects than do natural births. An estimated 150,000 test-tube babies have been born worldwide. Many of the same bioethicists who condemned test-tube babies are in the forefront of the attempts to ban cloning research. Twenty years ago, these same individuals warned that test-tube babies would break the natural bonds of families, with unimaginable consequences for society. Although their warnings have proven unjustified, the nay Sayers are dusting off the old arguments and applying them to this new advance. Cloning prohibitionists must be the ones held responsible for preventing the discovery of a cure for diseases and cancer. Their efforts to ban cloning will only stop the creation of new medicines and discoveries that will help million of people. So I say it again; write your senator in support of cloning research.