Human Cloning: Yesterday's Never Is Today's Why Not?

December 2, 1997

By GINA KOLATA

Just nine months have passed since an astonished world got its first glimpse of Dolly the lamb, the first animal cloned from a cell taken from an adult. It was a feat that science had declared impossible.

In the hubbub that ensued, scientist after scientist and ethicist after ethicist declared that Dolly should not conjure up fears of a Brave New World. There would be no interest in using the technology to clone people, they said.

They are already being proved wrong. There has been an enormous change in attitudes in just a few months; scientists have become sanguine about the notion of cloning and, in particular, cloning a human being.

Some infertility centers that said last spring they would never clone now say they are considering it. A handful of fertility centers are conducting experiments with human eggs that lay the groundwork for cloning. Moreover, the federal government is supporting new research on the cloning of monkeys, encouraging scientists to perfect techniques that could easily be transferred to humans.

Ultimately, scientists expect cloning to be combined with genetic enhancement, adding genes to give desired traits, which was the fundamental reason cloning was studied in animal research.

Only California has enacted a law making human cloning illegal, and those who are intrigued by the idea of cloning humans argue that it is no worse, morally, than creating custom embryos from sperm and egg donors. After all, it is an American tradition to allow people the freedom to reproduce in any way they like.

"From my perspective, it's just a matter of time" before the first human is cloned, said Dr. Steen Willadsen, a cloning pioneer who developed the fundamental methods for cloning animals.

Willadsen, whose techniques were used in the cloning of Dolly, now works at an in vitro fertilization center at St. Barnabas Hospital in East Orange, N.J. He said he had no ethical problem with cloning humans.

"It is not for me, as a person who invents techniques, to say how we should use them," Willadsen said.

Lori Andrews, a professor at Chicago-Kent College of Law and an expert on legal issues of reproduction, said she recently got a call from a British scientist who told her the same thing. Another doctor, Ms. Andrews added, told her that "if any of my relatives got cancer, I would clone them," and use the clone as a bone marrow donor to save the cancer patient's life.

"I absolutely think the tenor has changed," Ms. Andrews said. People who said human cloning would never be done "are now saying, 'Well, the risks aren't that great,"' she said.

"I see a total shift in the burden of proof to saying that unless you can prove there is actually going to be harm, then we should allow it," she said.

Ms. Andrews likes to quote two fertility experts, Dr. Sophia Kleegman and Dr. Sherwin Kaufman, who wrote, three decades ago, that new reproductive arrangements pass through several predictable stages, from "horrified negation" to "negation without horror" to "slow and gradual curiosity, study, evaluation, and finally a very slow but steady acceptance."

That happened, she said, with artificial insemination, with in vitro fertilization, with the freezing of human embryos and with surrogate mothers.

And it is happening with cloning, Ms. Andrews said. But what is so striking, she added, is that "the time frame from 'horrified negation' to 'let's do it' is so much shorter.

"This is very, very quick," she said.

Cloning would be fundamentally different from ordinary reproduction. It would involve taking a cell from a living person, slipping it into an egg cell whose genetic material has been removed and allowing the genetic material of the adult cell to direct the development of a new embryo, then fetus, then person who is the identical twin of the person who provided the initial cell. It would allow a living person to be reborn, in a sense, only at a later time.

Scientists and infertility specialists envision certain specialized circumstances in which it might be acceptable to clone humans. Grieving parents may want to reproduce a terminally ill child. Or a woman may want a child but be infertile. Is it worse somehow for her to clone herself than to obtain an embryo made-to-order with donated egg and sperm, the kind that many fertility clinics are already offering the infertile?

In fact, said Dr. Joseph Schulman, director of the Genetics and IVF Institute in Fairfax, Va., if a woman has no eggs and her husband makes no sperm, they might consider cloning both husband and wife.

"Then they could have one of each," Schulman said.

But what cloning really accomplishes, experts said, is to make it possible, for the first time, to think seriously about genetically enhancing human beings. Scientists could grow a person's cells in sheets in the laboratory and sprinkle the cells with genes. Only a very few cells would take up the genes, and use them, but it is relatively easy for scientists to find those cells and pluck them out of the mix.

If they then used those cells to make clones, the clones would contain the added genes in every cell of their body. Already, two such experiments have been completed in animals, using cells from fetuses rather than cells from adults.

Last summer, Dr. Keith Campbell of PPL Therapeutics in Roslin, Scotland, and Dr. Ian Wilmut of the Roslin Institute in Edinburgh, the scientists who created Dolly, announced that they had made Polly, a cloned lamb whose every cell contained a human gene. Shortly afterward, ABS Global Inc., a company in De Forest, Wis., announced the birth of Gene, a calf that was cloned from genetically altered fetal cells.

With humans, predicted Dr. Lee Silver, a molecular biologist at Princeton University, the first genetic enhancements might be genes to protect against diseases, like an AIDS resistance gene or a gene to protect against Alzheimer's disease, both of which have already been identified. In a sense, it would be no different morally from vaccinating a child for a disease, Silver said.

As more and more becomes known about genes, other enhancements become possible.

"At present," Willadsen said, "there is a large effort involved in sorting out the human genome. I don't think they are doing that just to have some nice charts to put on the wall."

Research that lays the groundwork for cloning humans is proceeding rapidly. Dr. James Grifo, the director of the division of reproductive endocrinology at New York University Medical Center, is working on nuclear transfers, the crucial technique for cloning, but with another purpose in mind. His goal is to transfer the genetic material from immature eggs of older women into eggs of younger women. The egg could finish maturing with the machinery of the younger woman's egg, and that should result in less chromosomal damage, the bane of attempted pregnancies in older women.

So far, Grifo has shown that he can move egg nuclei around, which is, in essence what is required for cloning.

Dr. Jacques Cohen and Willadsen, at St. Barnabas, also have moved nuclei between cells, but for a different reason. They are trying to help women whose eggs are easily fertilized but whose embryos tend to die, probably because there is a defect in the cytoplasm of their eggs.

"It's being used for a different purpose than cloning, but the techniques are very much the same," Willadsen said.

At the same time, Dr. Donald Wolf, a senior scientist at the Oregon Primate Research Center and the director of Oregon's only in vitro fertilization center, at the University of Oregon, has two federal grants to study cloning in rhesus monkeys. One will involve cloning from cells of an adult.

"We're pretty optimistic," Wolf said. "We have every reason to think it will work."

He explained that the National Institutes of Health, which gave him the grants, is interested in genetically identical monkeys for AIDS vaccine research and in clones of rhesus monkeys that, by chance, happened to develop a rare genetic disease, retinitis pigmentosa.

By cloning the animals, Wolf hopes to make enough of them for investigators to use them to study the disease and its treatments. But one consequence of the primate work, Wolf said, is that it will establish methods that could be applied for the cloning of humans.

"We are laying the groundwork," Wolf said.

Society should think about the possible results of all this work "sooner rather than later," Wolf said.

But some experts said the real question was not whether cloning is ethical but whether it is legal.

"The fact is that, in America, cloning may be bad but telling people how they should reproduce is worse," Willadsen said.

In the end, Willadsen said, "America is not ruled by ethics. It is ruled by law."

Copyright 1997 The New York Times Company