It has only been four years since Dolly the sheep, the first mammal cloned from an adult cell, was created in Scotland. Since then, whole herds of cattle, sheep and pigs have been cloned by scientists employing the latest techniques in biological manipulation. For the most part, we've merely watched in wonder and amusement as bucolic vets toyed with barnyard creatures and test tube-created dinner entrees.
But lately, the more touchy and confusing subject of human cloning has come up again. (Sorry, couldn't resist.) And even though this new world seems scary and repellent to those who envision duplicated Hitlers leading armies of two-headed Stepford Wives, the science of "somatic cell nuclear transfer" is not going to go away. So, first, a brief explanation of what cloning is, and then the main reason why it will be the "next next thing."
The event precipitating the latest round of hubbub was last week's announcement by Michael West, the CEO of Advanced Cell Technology of Worcester, Mass., that his company had created the first cloned human embryo, back in 1998. It accomplished this feat by removing DNA from the skin of a man's leg and inserting it into a cow's egg, which previously had its own nucleus removed. In theory, the product of this union, when incubated, will either have a line of differentiated stem cells inside of it harvested, or, if left alone, grow into an organism genetically identical to the one from which its nucleus was taken, i.e. a human male.
The purpose of the experiment, West was careful to explain, was not to create a cloned human being, but to "set the stage for Ã? a potentially limitless source of immune-compatible cells for tissue engineering and transplantation medicine." The adherents of this form of cloning -- "therapeutic" cloning -- claim that it will revolutionize the treatment of certain diseases and disorders by creating cells capable of transforming into tissues that won't be rejected by a body's immune system.
A majority of Americans support such research and the use of embryonic stem cells for treating disease, although there is some objection to the destruction of embryos -- a necessary result of stem cell harvesting. It's mostly the other kind of cloning -- "reproductive" cloning, in which one of the cloned embryos is implanted into a woman's uterus -- that has many people concerned about its uses and implications. In this type of cloning, couples unable to conceive by any other means would use the technique to create a biologically related child: one that essentially would be a latter-born twin -- genetically identical to only one of its parents.
Some scientists have reservations about reproductive cloning because of safety issues. Ethicists worry that we may face a eugenic future in which designer babies replace those created the old-fashioned way -- natural selection coming in a poor second to trends in fashion and questionable notions about preferred human characteristics. Religious opponents say the technique violates the sacredness of the procreation process. Who are we, they ask, to be playing God?
But playing God is what we humans do. (As a Woody Allen character once said in a movie, "I have to model myself after somebody!") There always are those who will defy any attempt to limit knowledge -- especially when, inherent in its pursuit, there is enormous potential for good. Indeed, it is our godlike nature that has propelled human progress, not only in the battle against disease, but also in overcoming or improving upon many of the other less benign aspects of God's creation.
And yet, the real evidence that human cloning is here to stay comes from the other side of our dual nature -- the not-so-godlike part, the part that always wants a bigger yacht. Progress will continue not only to help cure disease and infertility; it will endure because of the vast new markets likely to be spawned by cloning-inspired advances in plastic, reconstructive and cosmetic surgery. Yes, the vainglorious search for a more perfect body ultimately will be the fuel that keeps the research dollars flowing and the new tissues growing.
In the end, the god of Moloch will win out against the god of fundamentalism; the search for a safer breast implant or the reversal of the aging process will be the economic engine that drives the cloning revolution forward into that brave new world. For, if Dolly the sheep was first, then Dolly Parton the 2nd can't be far behind.