PLAYING GOD? Ethical Storm as World's First Human Clone Is Created

Article excerpt

Byline: TIM UTTON

THIS is the moment when scientists breached one of the greatest ethical boundaries to create the first human clone.

An embryo divides to form two cells at the very beginning of the process which, nine months later, should lead to the birth of a child.

The astonishing picture was taken under a microscope by South Korean doctors. Flying in the face of criticism that they are 'playing God', they went on to create 30 of the clones, keeping them alive for a week before destroying them.

The experiment was welcomed in some quarters as a breakthrough which could eventually enable scientists to create replacement organs and tissue for transplant.

But it caused a huge ethical row over whether it is a step too far in the name of science.

Critics warned that it could lead directly to the mass production of made-to- order babies, while the experiment itself was condemned as morally repugnant as it created life simply to destroy it.

Although human cloning is banned in most developed countries, maverick American fertility expert Panos Zavos already claims to have attempted to create a human clone, although his first effort failed.

By contrast, details of the South Korean cloning operation were reported in the respected journal Science and at the American Association for the Advancement of Science annual meeting in Seattle.

The team used 242 eggs taken from 16 women and removed their central DNA before replacing it with genetic material from the women's skin cells.

In a cloning technique used to create Dolly the sheep, the new egg was given a jolt of electricity to kick start cell division - the beginning of human life.

Of the 242 eggs, 30 grew into embryos which were allowed to survive for between five and seven days. They were allowed to grow to between 60 and 100 cells in size - smaller than the tip of a pinhead.

The embryos at this stage are called blastocysts and look, under the microscope, like a round bundle of cells. Scientists were then able to glean special cells, called stem cells, which have the power to grow into any tissue in the body - blood, brain cells, bone, cartilage and organs.

To test how the stem cells would work as a medical cure, they implanted them into mice to prove they could grow into different types of tissue and would not be rejected by the body.

The overall process is referred to as 'therapeutic cloning' - to produce treatments for disease.

Using such technology, a person waiting for a liver, kidney, heart or other transplant would simply have to provide a single cell containing his or her own DNA, which would then be fused with an egg to create a tiny cloned embryo in the laboratory.

It would then be 'harvested' for whatever type of replacement tissue was needed, cultured in the laboratory and perfectly matched to the original patient.

Lead researcher Professor Woo Suk Hwang, of Seoul National University, admitted he already felt concerned because of the danger that his discoveries could be used to clone a baby.

'These are the most advanced human embryo clones yet produced,' he said.

'Our approach opens the door for the use of these specially developed cells in transplantation medicine.

'I am very happy but I also feel much weight on my shoulders in case someone misuses this technology.' Dr Hwang admitted that the work could provide a guidebook for maverick researchers intent on creating the first cloned human. …