For quite some time many important and influential people have been freaking out over the prospect of cloning a human being. When Dolly the cloned sheep’s existence was revealed to the world 10 years ago, panic ensued. World leaders — including the president, the pope and numerous prime ministers — condemned Dolly’s creation as a regrettable and dangerous step toward cloning a human being.
At the time my view was there was no reason for panic. It took more than 250 pregnancies to produce Dolly and the odds of that same cloning process working in humans were not great. In the years since Dolly was born, the only scientist who claimed any success in cloning human embryos was in Korea, and it quickly was proven that Dr. Hwang Woo-Suk and his team had lied when they claimed success. In fact, no scientists anywhere in the world had managed to clone any sort of primate. No monkey, gorilla, chimp or orangutan embryos or adults were ever successfully cloned. So there was no reason for popes and presidents and potentates to worry.
Now, news has broken that a team at the Oregon National Primate Research Center in Beaverton, Ore., has succeeded in cloning 20 macaque monkey embryos. The techniques they used to achieve this monumental breakthrough in cloning work were the same as were used to make Dolly the sheep, but with fewer toxic chemicals. This is so significant because what works in monkeys usually works in people.
But there still is no reason to panic.
There are two reasons to try to apply cloning to people. One is to create embryos so that stem cells can be taken from them and used to develop treatments against disease. The other is to make a clone of you or me.
No one who is in a position to actually try to apply to humans what the Oregon scientists did with monkeys has any interest in using cloning to reproduce or mass produce people. Despite making cloned monkey embryos, the Oregon research team could not sustain a viable pregnancy with any of them. This means that cloning to create actual people is still very hard to do and certainly very dangerous to try.
The real drive in cloning human embryos with this Oregon technique is not to implant the cloned embryos into wombs, but to try to manipulate these embryos in lab dishes to see if they can provide viable sources of stem cells.
The risk of making deformed or dead human children by cloning is still huge — so huge that talk about reproductive cloning will still be confined for the immediate future to nuts, kooks, cultists and cranks who have no shot at success.
But making public policy in a tizzy about nut jobs is no way to proceed. Rather we need carefully constructed legislation that says no to reproductive cloning but permits cloning for research purposes to move ahead. Britain, for instance, has banned putting cloned human embryos into a woman's body.
Up until now the fight about the ethics and funding of embryonic stem cell research has presupposed either making human embryos using sperm and egg or using already existing embryos left over, unclaimed and unwanted, at in vitro fertilization clinics. Cloned embryos would be a better source.
Why? Because if you make a cloned embryo by putting DNA from say your own skin or tongue into an egg from which the DNA has been removed then you make embryos whose stem cells can be used to repair diseases and injuries in your own body without fear of them being rejected by your body’s immune system. This would let people use their own cells to make stem cells that could then be put back into their own bodies to repair damaged hearts, severed spinal cords or worn out parts of the brain that lead to Parkinson's disease.
The Oregon announcement is very welcome news if you suffer from diabetes, nerve damage, paralysis or heart failure. Cloning human embryos using the Oregon technique should jump-start embryonic stem cell research using your own cells to get the process going.
Some will argue that none of this research should be permitted in humans. Won’t cloning human embryos make it too tempting to use them for reproduction as well as research? And isn’t it murder, some will say, to clone human embryos to then destroy them to harvest stem cells from them. Neither argument carries sufficient weight for politicians and governments to ban cloning for research.
While it is true that the creation of stem cells means destroying a cloned embryo, a cloned embryo in a lab dish has no ability to develop into a person. It is at best a possible person —not an actual one. Moreover, we already know that nearly all cloned embryos are so miswired that very few are capable of becoming a healthy adult organism at all, making cloned human embryos far more ethical to use for embryonic stem cell research than human embryos created solely for research purposes.
It has taken 10 years but the prospect of human cloning has now inched very close to becoming a reality. We don’t need to panic in response to this prospect. We need to proceed with great caution. While we may not want to use cloning as a way to make people we should create laws and policies that permit the use of cloning to help create the cells that can heal and repair the people who are already here.
Arthur Caplan, Ph.D., is director of the Center for Bioethics at the University of Pennsylvania.