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Cloning - not so new, after all

Boz magazine, 47: 14-15, March 1998

Brian J Ford

I was sitting in the lab busily cloning, the way you do, when the news broke. Someone had cloned a sheep. The wires were soon hot, which happens if you leave the computer too near the lamp, and the whole of human ethics was being thrown into the melting-pot. This, said the media, introduced the new age of molecular genetics and the end of civilisation as we know it. Any time now there would be Tony Blair lookalikes strutting their imperious way down Whitehall. Serried rows of Richard Bransons would take over the balloon business, since his trains are always in a pickle and balloons must be more reliable than that. David Baddiel could finally retire, confident that a new race of Spike Milligans would restore British humour to where it was when it was a lot worse than it is now.

The main features of the great debate seem to be that cloning is new, it is terribly complicated to understand, that you could make lots of geniuses - or war-lords - at the drop of a hat, that the results of cloning are just like each other (and to their genetic parent) and we could start cloning babies any time now. None of these is true. Cloning is nothing new. We have been doing it for thousands of years. Every now and again, the dividing cells of a newly fertilized human embryo separate. Instead of growing to form one entire human, each cell grows to form its own separate embryo. When there are two of the cells, we have identical twins. They are clones, and there is no mystery about that. It has been known for generations that you can do the same for frogs and toads. Were we to separate the cells of a new human embryo growing in the fertilisation laboratory, I dare say you could produce many identical humans. It has been theoretically possible for years. The technique has long been used in the growing of plants. Pineapples, for example, and orchids can be produced artificially by separating out cells from a single plant body and turning out identical progeny. Apart from its value in commercial agriculture, the technique is of particular value in creating large numbers of new plants from a species whose survival might otherwise be threatened.

In Dolly’s case, the nucleus from a cell originating in her udder was transferred to an ovum from which the nucleus had been removed. The ovum - with its new nucleus - carried on growing and was subsequently transplanted into a uterus where it was born like any other lamb. Genetically, it was the same as Dolly. The origin of the cell nucleus - mammary tissue - made naming the animal after Dolly Parton a foregone conclusion. The idea of making identical humans is an old one. The earliest novel on the subject was A. E. van Vogt’s 1945 book The World of Null-A, and the first book with ‘clone’ in the title was P. T. Olemy’s The Clones, published in 1968. More famous was Ira Levin’s story The Boys from Brazil of 1976, in which a vengeful scientist produced more little Hitlers than you'd find at the Child Support Agency. It is not so easy to produce a posse of malevolent dictators. What made Hitler into Hitler was not just his genes, but an unrepeatable series of experiential inputs which honed his personality, and the quirky use of a razor.

Under a microscope, you can see that the way nerve cells join up varies enormously from one individual to another, and it is in complex systems like this where the personality is refined. Anyway, you don’t clone babies. What you do is clone someone who becomes an angry adult with an attitude and a big stick. We already implant embryos of alien genetic origins into infertile women, and that is potentially a great cause of future problems. When you choose a partner, you do so because of personality attraction - but with a donor gamete you might end up bearing somebody from whom you are instinctively alienated. The problems facing us from in vitro fertilization of donated sex cells may make the controversy over cloning seem modest by comparison. Not only that, but cloning is not very reliable. Before Dolly was successfully delivered, there were 237 attempts to make the experiment work. Meanwhile, a 69-year-old physicist from Chicago is now planning to set up the world’s first cloning company for humans. Richard Seed plans to call it the Human Clone Clinic, and he knows that desperate people will want to try the process. In my view, there might be cases where people will plead for cloning - when a child is lost, for example, and a parent is smitten with infertility. People like the Dr Seed will be seen as a saviour in a lost cause.

If that is true of the desperate few, it is not the case for the majority. After the idea was first announced, there was a news poll carried out in the States by ABC. Over 16,000 people responded to the questionnaire, and three quarters of them were opposed to the cloning of people. Public opinion isn’t necessarily the right arbiter, of course (I dare say there were plenty opposed to electricity or anaesthesia when they were new). Cloning of humans will be possible within two years - and, if we do have a new technique which could be of benefit to suffering humanity, it would be difficult simply to ban it.

It is a twist of fate that the chief proponent of cloning, Dick Seed, sounds like a well-tried remedy for barrenness. ‘This will bring people closer to God,’ he says. I don’t know about that, but it might bring Dr Seed closer to his Porsche.

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