Universe Column for January 4th 2004
By David Alton
Just before Christmas I took part in a rather scary Conference on human cloning. It was scary because also on the platform was a representative of Cloneaid – whose representive could see no ethical objection to cloning for live births. In the face of worldwide opposition she claims that she and her colleagues have already cloned babies and intend to clone more. There simply could be no meeting of minds between us because there was no common ground. Not only does the pro-cloning lobby seem completely disinterested in the ethical arguments and international opinion it also seems oblivious to the huge risks to public health.
It is clear from current scientific evidence that the vast majority of cloned babies would die in the womb, and the few that developed to birth would be likely to die within a few days, or would be severely handicapped, or would die early. The most famous animal cloner is Professor Wilmut, who is best known for the creation of ‘Dolly’ the sheep. In a recent article in “Nature Reviews Genetics”, he says: “Our experience with other mammals shows us that any attempts at cloning humans are inherently unsafe at present. On these grounds alone, scientists should not condone human reproductive cloning, even without taking into account the equally important ethical and moral issues.”
Another article, in “New Scientist” paints a graphic picture of the fate of cloned animals that do survive to birth: “Abnormalities in those surviving to term frequently include oversized hearts and lungs, enlarged tongues, squashed faces, poorly functioning kidneys, intestinal blockages, immune deficiencies, diabetes, shortened tendons causing feet to twist into useless curves, a remarkable degree of obesity and impaired intelligence.” However, in many cases, even severe abnormalities in reproductive cloning may be undetectable until the animal dies unexpectedly. An animal which is apparently completely healthy one day, may die the next. Scientiests say that foetuses that look robust at 60 days may die at 61; that a clone that dies after five days of life can have normal chromosomes and genes while still in the womb. Cloned animals that survive longer than a few days can still die at a young age. For example, in one study it was found that many cloned mice died early owing to severe lung disease, tumours and liver necrosis. Professors Wilmut and his colleague Professor Jaenisch state, “There is no reason to believe that the outcomes of attempted human cloning will be any different…if human cloning is attempted, those embryos that do not die early may live to become abnormal children and adults; both are troubling outcomes.”
Some have claimed that it would be possible to screen out abnormal embryos and not to implant them. Apart from this being the practice of eugenics, Professor Ian Wilmut states clearly that it is not possible currently to reliably predict which cloned embryos are “safe”, because current screening techniques using pre-implantation diagnosis only check specific genetic abnormalities, whereas cloned embryos have profound abnormalities as well as genetic defects. Even if abnormalities were examined, it would be impossible to carry out adequate checks because (a) abnormalities in cloned embryos have been found to be different from cell to cell. Therefore testing individual cells would not give an indication of whether other cells in the embryo were normal or not; and (b) it would require knowledge of the potential adverse epigenetic effects, which is currently not possible. Professor Wilmut and Professor Jaenish graphically spell out the dangers: “We believe that attempts to clone human beings at a time when the scientific issues of nuclear cloning have not been clarified, are dangerous and irresponsible. There is also considerable evidence about the dangers to public health if human embryos created for the purpose of experimental cloning are then used in treatments and therapies.
Even proponents of embryo experimentation, such as Lord Winston, have admitted that freezing embryos increases the risk of disability when the embryos are used for fertility treatments. As we tread warily into another year shouldn’t all of this make us at least pause for thought? Not if the people from Cloneaid have their way.