Human-Cloning Expert Doubts Claim, Explains Issue

Bijal P. Trivedi
National Geographic Today
January 9, 2003
The human cloning controversy doubles and redoubles. Clonaid, a private cloning company founded by a religious sect, has recently claimed to have produced not one but two human clones.

Since the announcement of the birth of Dolly the sheep, the first mammalian clone, in 1997, the community of clones has extended to cats, cows, goats, mice, pigs and rabbits. But producing healthy viable clones, of any kind, presents a formidable scientific challenge.

For perspective on the cloning revolution, National Geographic Today spoke with molecular biologist Kathy Hudson, founder and director of the Johns Hopkins University Genetics and Public Policy Center in Washington, D.C.

Has Clonaid produced the first human clones?

I think the claims are suspect and alarming because they are not being supported by any data at all. There isn't a shred of evidence, no track record of safety or scientific expertise.

What proof is needed to support Clonaid's claim?

Test 13 genetic markers. These are the standard DNA markers used in law enforcement for paternity testing, the O.J. trial, DNA dog tags for the military and for all the DNA databases kept on criminals of violent crimes. The tests could be completed in less than a day.

If Clonaid doesn't succeed, will someone else?

I think human cloning is inevitable. There have been proposals at the United Nations to have an international ban on reproductive cloning. Barring that, we will have people attempting to clone a human.

Why is human cloning so controversial?

It's a big departure from how we have reproduced in the past—it's asexual reproduction. So there is a single parent, if you will, rather than two parents having their genetic material mixed in unique ways to create a fundamentally new individual. Instead, there is a replica of an existing individual—and that's disturbing at a gut level.

Cloning also disturbs people because it is new. We saw this same kind of reaction to in vitro fertilization—the so-called test-tube babies.

Now that scientists have cloned animals, does that mean that we are ready or able to clone humans?

No. In human reproduction, it is tough to extrapolate from animal models, even primates.

If you look at the history of assisted reproductive technologies, scientists have found that techniques that didn't work in primates and mice were successful in humans—there are strange differences between the way that humans and animals produce eggs and sperm and the way fertilization happens.

The question is whether we will be able to improve cloning in animals so that it is highly efficient and safe so that we could then use it in humans with confidence.

But I'm not sure it will ever be ethical to prove that it is safe because that would involve human beings in those experiments—and is that ethical?

Will ethics questions stop the human-cloning experiments?

I think that people are just going to do it—through conduct that is unacceptable within the current scientific or ethical norms.

Accumulation of information and perfection of method will be done along the fringes. The consequences of tinkering are devastating. The consequences of something not working correctly in cloning, or any kind of embryo manipulation, are huge.

What are the benefits of cloning humans?

The case of [human] cloning is really quite distinct because there is no clear weighing of risks and benefits. The risks to the cloned individual are enormous. The benefits to the cloned individual are not really part of the equation. The benefits are to the people who want to have a clone.

What risks do clones face?

In many species, cloned animals suffer from over-growth syndrome—they grow larger than is typical of the species at birth. That presents risks and problems for the mother.

Many have organ deformities and genetic abnormalities—errors in whether genes are turned on or off—that we don't really understand. Many of these pregnancies spontaneously abort.

Dolly also developed premature arthritis, and who knows what other health consequences she will face?

What are the potential uses of human cloning?

Cloning is not the be-all and end-all step in human reproduction. If the technology is ever proven safe—a big "if"—it might be an option to treat infertility, though there is a vast array of other options for couples who wish to have a child, or for lesbian or gay couples who can't have children of their own.

There is a disturbing perception that you could use cloning to replace a lost son or daughter. We are much too complicated to replicate what was loved and lost.

A genetically identical individual is not going to be an identical individual—to say we could clone an individual and get a copy is a mistaken perception of the roles genes play and the unique nature of human beings.

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