"Therapeutic" cloning: A human misconception

The term "human cloning" refers to the creation of a genetically identical copy of an existing -- or previously existing -- human being, or to the production of genetically identical tissue from that individual. In 2001, scientists at Advanced Cell Technology in Worcester, Massachussetts announced that they had successfully cloned a human embryo. It was the first time human cells had been grown through "somatic cell nuclear transfer", the same technique used to clone Dolly the sheep about 5 years before. The egg used to coax the human DNA to divide was taken from a paid human donor, and the embryo survived for only a few cell divisions. This artice comments on that event. It was published in the Philadelphia Inquirer on December 13, 2001.

The human cloning effort took its first baby-steps recently when Dr. Michael West and colleagues at Advanced Cell Technology announced the successful regeneration of human embryonic cells from a sample of adult DNA. After removing the normal female half-dose of DNA from an egg given up by a paid volunteer donor, they inserted a full dose of adult DNA into it. Then, using subtle electrical and chemical prodding, the newly formed entity was induced to divide.

And divide it did, for two or three generations, before succumbing to the inhospitable climate of the petri dish. The well-orchestrated media blitz that followed was remarkable for its hubris. ACT investigators had barely summoned up six primitive cells from the human clone they manufactured yet references to the therapeutic benefits of the work figured prominently in their publicity campaign. In an allusion lost to no one, they identified the donor of the cloned DNA as a paraplegic Texas physician and father of two.

Tugging at our heartstrings to gain sympathy for an experiment fraught with ethical and scientific problems hardly seems appropriate, in particular when the weight of current scientific data overwhelmingly favors the therapeutic potential of adult stem cells over those derived from embryos or from cloning. Moreover, a careful look at cloning suggests that a certain “deception” of nature is inherent to this process.

A normal egg will divide only if fertilized. In cloning, the egg is fooled into thinking that conception has occurred. Exposure to the unique natural environment found in the egg and the artificial environment contrived in the test tube causes partially dormant adult DNA to revert back to an activated, embryonic state. DNA normally exists in a fully activated state only once: when the DNA of sperm and egg come together at the moment of conception. So human cloning is simply human misconception.

And misconceptions abound in the understanding that the ACT group seems to have of their own labors. Ron Green, Dartmouth religion professor and ACT’s chief bioethicist, justified the experiments claiming that the clone was not a human embryo, but rather “an activated egg”, “a new type of biological entity never before seen in nature”. Yet the scientific paper and their article in Scientific American referred to a “human cloned embryo” as the result of their experiment. Semantics aside, the ACT group overlooks a simple fact: each and every human life is a new and unrepeatable force of nature. Like any work of art, each human person draws value from singularity. Breaking the mold, ensuring that there can be no two alike, affirms and enhances the value of the original. Cloning humans serves only to promote high-tech narcissism.

Scientists know next to nothing about what happens to human DNA when subjected to the unnatural prodding required for cloning. There is no doubt that the changes to the cloned genome are explosive, as complex as they are subtle. If observations in cloned animals are any indication, DNA cloning frequently causes grave and unpredictable adverse effects to the resulting organism. This simple observation makes blind faith in the therapeutic potential of human cloning difficult to understand.

The technique used by ACT has already resulted in the generation of fully developed animals of a variety of species. Dolly the sheep is the prototype. If this technique is perfected for human DNA and the resulting cells are allowed to develop, the manufacture of a fully developed human organism would be the foreseeable outcome. West and his colleagues at ACT have assured us that their intent is purely “therapeutic” and never “reproductive”. They desire only the parts and not the whole, and since West affirms that he works “to rid mankind of suffering and death”, we might conclude that somatic immortality is his ultimate goal.

Cooking up “new types of biological entities” is hardly a task fit for science. The push to clone advocated by ACT and others is rooted in and will inevitably foster deep misconceptions about what it means to be human, and worse abuses are sure to follow. Remember that, to justify his own utopian agenda, Josef Stalin boasted, “You’ve got to break a few eggs to make an omelet”. By failing to recognize that human life is untouchable, as sacred as it is frail, ACT risks an unsavory association with the totalitarians of the last century. And we know that is a recipe for disaster.


Anonymous said...

I have always been looking forward to Dr. Buffill's articles. He combines erudition, clarity and wit on Medicine and Ethics.
I hope he continues his writing efforts confronting the plenty new challenges caused by the Brave New World.

Egg Donors said...

Your blog keeps getting better and better! Your older articles are not as good as newer ones you have a lot more creativity and originality now keep it up!