Magazine article The Futurist

Designer Babies and 21st Century Cures: Ian Wilmut, the Geneticist Who Cloned Dolly the Sheep, Plunges Headfirst into the Cloning Debate in after Dolly

Magazine article The Futurist

Designer Babies and 21st Century Cures: Ian Wilmut, the Geneticist Who Cloned Dolly the Sheep, Plunges Headfirst into the Cloning Debate in after Dolly

Article excerpt

In 1997, a research team led by geneticist Ian Wilmut in Scotland succeeded in cloning a white-faced sheep named Dolly, and plunging the world into a new era of fear, possibility, and speculation. His new book, After Dolly: The Uses and Misuses of Human Cloning, explains the fascinating but complicated cloning process. It also examines key misconceptions that have arisen in the shadow of Dolly, such as the likelihood of creating genetically enhanced "designer babies." Wilmut puts forward a passionate argument for applying cloning techniques to stem-cell science in order to find cures for the world's most devastating genetic diseases and disorders, such as Parkinson's and Hodgkin's diseases.

On a conceptual level, the process of cloning is really not very complicated. DNA is harvested from an adult cell (a mammary cell in the case of Dolly). The DNA is then inserted into the center of a hollowed-out egg from a different animal of the same species. With its nucleus removed, the host egg would not contain genetic material from the animal that provided it (but would contain cytoplasm). Once the donor DNA has been inserted, a carefully released burst of electricity convinces the enucleated egg that it has been fertilized, or "activated." The egg is then inserted into the uterine lining of a third animal (the birthing mother). If the resulting offspring is a genetic match with the original DNA donor but not the donor of the hosting egg or the birthing mother, then the cloning attempt has been successful.

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Needless to say, in practice cloning is far more difficult. Wilmut and his team extracted material from 277 donor cells and implanted 29 embryos into surrogate mothers, but only one embryo developed into a fetus and finally into a live sheep.

Since his success with Dolly, Wilmut has turned his attention to the debate on stem-cell therapy, or what is sometimes called therapeutic cloning. Ironically, the man who many consider to be one of the giants in the field of cloning research has mixed views about the term itself.

"The usual term for the procedure of deriving cells from cloned embryos, 'therapeutic cloning,' sends shivers down the spines of many people," Wilmut writes. "Many experts have wondered whether the use of the term 'cloning' has damaged the field because it is so laden with grim associations and negative baggage. Understandably, the official alternative--'cell nuclear replacement'--is gray and wordy and, as a result, has not caught on."

Recent polling research validates this opinion. While 58% of Americans now favor embryonic stem-cell research, 59% are opposed to using cloning technology to create embryos in order to provide stem cells for therapy, despite the marginal difference between these two processes. "What's in a name?" Wilmut asks. "In this case, a great deal. These primal cells are the stuff of which medical dreams are made."

Unlike either animal cloning or reproductive human cloning (which Wilmut adamantly opposes), therapeutic cloning involves creating an embryo that is a genetic match with the human seeking therapy, and then harvesting and manipulating stem cells from that embryo. This process, Wilmut writes, offers a way to dependably obtain genetically compatible tissue of any kind. Stem cells are harvested from an activated egg that has reached the blastocyst stage, roughly 200 cells. At this stage, the embryo is little more than a ball of undifferentiated genetic material. By way of comparison, a fully formed human, capable of thought and reason, comprises nearly 10 trillion cells.

Wilmut defends his work with blastocysts on the basis that such genetic material, once created in a dish, cannot survive on its own, bares no resemblance to an adult of any species, and is totally incapable of thought or discomfort.

"Is the blastocyst aware? …

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