Hello, Dolly: A cloned sheep is only the beginning to an inevitable
San Jose Mercury News
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Two excellent books provide more background on human cloning: One explains how it can be done; the other makes clear why it is inevitable.
Clone: The Road to Dolly and the Path Ahead (William Morrow, 276 pp., $23) tells how two English scientists, Ian Wilmut and Keith Campbell, working at the Roslin Institute near Edinburgh, Scotland, successfully cloned Dolly out of the genetic material in an udder cell from a 6-year-old ewe. ``When the time comes to write the history of our age, this quiet birth, the creation of this little lamb will stand out,'' author Gina Kolata states. ``The world is a different place now that she is born.''
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Where can we expect this new era to take us? Lee M. Silver, a professor of molecular biology at Princeton University, has some answers, and if you think you are opposed to cloning human beings, be prepared for a major reassessment.
Silver's Remaking Eden: Cloning and Beyond in a Brave New World (Avon, 315 pp., $25) should be required reading for politicians before they consider legislation regarding human cloning.
Silver says Aldous Huxley had it right in his famous 1931 novel, ``Brave New World,'' when he guessed that humanity would seize control over the processes of reproduction, but he was dead wrong when he envisioned that control being held by a government organization. The driving force behind baby making comes from individuals and couples. They will provide the demand for the technologies that will enable them to achieve otherwise unattainable reproductive goals, or to help their children achieve health, happiness and success. As history has shown, those with enough resources will have their desires fulfilled despite government rules and regulations.
Anyone who accepts the right of affluent parents to provide their children with an expensive private school education cannot use unfairness as a reason for rejecting the use of reprogenetic technologies. If one accepts the parent prerogative after birth, it is hard to argue against it before birth, if no harm is caused to the children who emerge.
Silver writes every bit as clearly as Kolata and knows how to illustrate a point. When he first polls his students at Princeton about genetic engineering, almost everyone opposes it. When he rephrases the question in the context of a hypothetical gene enhancement that could forever protect newborns against AIDs, opposition shrivels. So where does one draw the line? Is it a question of timing? As Silver notes, no one objects to the use of orthodontics to straighten teeth, rhinoplasty to straighten noses, or good nutrition and education to enhance intelligence. Nor is there much objection to the use of technology to cure disease. Moral questions seem to arise only over the use of technology to alter the natural course of things before an individual is born.
As the ethical debates about human cloning and other reprogenetic technologies intensify, Silver reminds us that adoption of such technologies does not take place overnight, but happens incrementally -- and often with little fanfare. Take for example, what for many is the scariest of all cloning scenarios: the idea of producing humans for the purpose of donating organs. Guess what? It has already been done.
In 1988, Anissa Ayala, a high school sophomore in a suburb of Los Angeles, was diagnosed with myelogenous leukemia, a slowly progressing but ultimately fatal cancer of blood stem cells. Her only chance for survival was a bone-marrow transplant. After a futile two-year search for a compatible donor, Anissa's parents, Mary and Abe, decided to have another child who could provide Anissa with bone marrow .
The odds were heavily against the family. Abe was 45 and had been vasectomized long before; Mary was 42. Even if they could conceive, the chances that the child would have bone marrow compatible with Anissa's were only one in four. Against all those odds, Marissa Eve was born April 2, 1990, and provided the life-saving bone marrow to her sister 14 months later.
Had cloning been available, Silver points out, Mary and Abe could have requested that a skin cell be taken from Anissa's body and used to construct a new embryo. Instead of a baby with a 25 percent chance of compatible bone marrow, Mary could have given birth to a baby that was 100 percent guaranteed to be a perfect genetic match. If you were Mary and Abe, what would you have done?
Many people would agree that a child in need of a compatible donor provides a compelling and ethically sound reason for parents to engage in cloning, but once the door is open, Silver asks, who is going to close it? For those who oppose what the Ayalas did, on the basis that they had a baby for the ``wrong reasons,'' Silver challenges us to define the ``right reasons'' to have a baby. Because all your friends are having babies? Because your marriage or your life seems to be missing something? Because your first child needs a playmate?
In ``Remaking Eden,'' Silver offers up a wide assortment of reasons to have a baby and some intriguing ways to have exactly the baby you want. It starts with cloning, which has become a bugaboo in public discussions. Even the word ``clone,'' he says, has a negative connotation because in its popular usage, it means ``a cheaper imitation of a brand-name person, place, or thing.'' But this popular usage, which gave critic Jeremy Rifkin the opportunity to condemn humans making ``Xerox copies of themselves,'' has nothing to do with cloning technology, in either process or outcome, as Silver shows. ``When the misconceptions are tossed aside, it becomes clear what a cloned child will be. She or he will simply be a later-born identical twin -- nothing more and nothing less.''
In discussing the possibilities for cloning in the future, Silver often simply posits advances in technologies that have been applied to mice or other laboratory animals.
For example, a technique known as embryo fusion, which enables an offspring to have two genetic mothers or fathers, could enable a homosexual couple to become genetic as well as social parents.
For example, fetal matching could have truly mind-boggling ramifications. It would make it possible to remove immature eggs and sperm progenitors from aborted or miscarried fetuses and use them to create children from mothers and fathers who never existed. Less alarming and more practical is the potential for prospective parents to one day select for the positive alleles (forms) of genes they carry and reject any negatives, thereby assuring that they will spawn the most genetically enhanced child their money can buy.
The pursuit of reproductive goals carried out by many individuals and couples, operating over many generations, could give rise to ``a polarized humanity more horrific than Huxley's imagined Brave New World,'' Silvers says. He envisions a time in the third millennium when there are two entirely separate species of humans, ``GenRich and Natural,'' with no ability to crossbreed, much like the Eloi and Morlocks in ``The Time Machine'' by H.G. Wells.
Speculation aside, what becomes abundantly clear by the end of ``Remaking Eden,'' is that a human commitment to cloning and other reprogenetic engineering technologies has already been made. Genetic enhancements probably will start out providing little fixes to naturally occurring genetic defects, Silver says, but their application will expand exponentially. In time, he writes, genetic enhancements that were once ``unimaginable will become indispensable to those parents who are able to afford them.'' As a parent who has paid for braces and contact lenses and will soon be paying for his daughters to take SAT preparation courses, I don't doubt Silver is correct.
Lynn Yarris is a science writer at Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory. Write to him at the Mercury News, 750 Ridder Park Drive, San Jose, Calif. 95190, or fax (408) 271-3786.