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Probe Ministries > Faith and Science > Bioethics > Can Humans Be Cloned Like Sheep?


Can Humans Be Cloned Like Sheep? Print E-mail

Dr. Ray Bohlin

Written by Dr. Ray Bohlin

Why Is Cloning So Difficult and How Did They Do It?

Like so many others I was caught totally flat-footed and astonished by the announcement of the successful cloning of an adult sheep, Dolly. A few years ago I aired a radio program on the prospects of human cloning and considerably downplayed the possibilities. Earlier this year, we here at Probe had decided to rebroadcast this program because little had changed. When the announcement about Dolly was made, it was too late to pull the program from the schedule as tapes had already been sent to all the radio stations, and there just wasn't time to replace or update it. Consequently, I compiled a few thoughts and comments on this historic breakthrough and quickly made it available on our web site to temporarily plug the gap.

Subsequently, the article was featured on Christian Leadership's web site, Leadership University (www.leaderu.com), and I started receiving numerous phone calls and e-mails as a result. This essay is now an updated and expanded version of that article to help us think through both the scientific and moral implications of this stunning achievement.

The genetic material is the same in all cells of an organism (except the reproductive cells, sperm and egg, which have only half the full complement of chromosomes). However, differentiated cells (liver cells, stomach cells, muscle cells, etc.) are biochemically programmed to perform limited functions and all other functions are turned off. Most scientists felt that the reprogramming was next to impossible based on cloning attempts in frogs and mice.

So what did the scientists in Scotland do that was successful? Well, they took normal mammary cells from an adult ewe and starved them (i.e., denied them certain critical growth nutrients) in order to allow the cells to reach a dormant stage. This process of bringing the cells into dormancy apparently allows the cells' DNA to be deprogrammed. Apparently most if not all of the programming for specific functions of the mammary cells were turned off and the DNA made available for reprogramming. The starved mammary cells were then fused with an egg cell that had its nucleus removed. The egg cell was then stimulated to begin cell division by an electric pulse. Proteins already in the egg cell somehow altered the DNA from the mammary cell to be renewed for cell division and embryological functions.

As might be expected, the process was inefficient. Out of 277 cell fusions, 29 began growing as embryos in vitro or in the petri dish. All 29 were implanted into 13 receptive ewes, yet only one became pregnant. As a result of these efforts, one lamb was born. This translates to a success rate of only 3.4%, and the success rate is even less (.36%), when you calculate using the 277 initial cell fusions attempted. In nature, on the other hand, somewhere between 33 and 50% of all fertilized eggs develop fully into newborns.

Altogether the procedure was rather non-technical, and no one is really sure why it worked. The experiments still need to be repeated. Previously, all attempts to clone mice from adult cells have failed. But clearly, an astounding breakthrough has been made. You can be sure that numerous labs around the world will be attempting to repeat these experiments and trying the technique on other mammalian species. Can this procedure be done with humans? Should we try it with humans? I'll be dealing with these questions later in this discussion.

Why Clone Anything?

Before proceeding to deal with the question of human cloning, a more basic concern needs to be addressed. Some, for example, may be asking, "Why would anyone want to clone anything in the first place, but especially sheep?"

The purpose of these experiments was to find a more effective way to reproduce already genetically engineered sheep for production of pharmaceuticals. Sheep can be genetically engineered to produce a certain human protein or hormone in its milk. The human protein can then be harvested from the milk and sold on the market. This is accomplished by taking the human gene for the production of this protein or hormone and inserting it into an early sheep embryo. Hopefully the embryo will grow into a sheep that will produce the protein.

This is not a certainty, and while the process may improve, it will never be perfect. Mating the engineered sheep is also not foolproof because even mating with another genetically engineered sheep may result in lambs that have lost the inserted human gene and cannot produce the desired protein. Therefore, instead of trusting the somewhat unpredictable and time-consuming methods of normal animal husbandry to reproduce this genetic hybrid, cloning more directly assures that the engineered gene product will not be lost.

There may be other benefits to cloning technology. Reprogramming the nucleus of other cells, such as nerve cells, could lead to procedures to stimulate degenerating nerve cells to be replaced by newly growing nerve cells. Nerve cells in adults do not ordinarily regenerate or reproduce. This could have important implications for those suffering from Parkinson's and Alzheimer's.

If the process can actually be perfected to the extent that production costs are reduced and the quality of the eventual product is improved, then this would be a legitimate research goal. The simplicity of the technique, though still inefficient, makes this plausible. But there are still questions that need to be answered.

One critical question concerns the lifespan of Dolly. All cells have a built in senescence or death after so many cell divisions. Dolly began with a cell from a ewe that was already six years old. A normal lifespan for a ewe is around 11 years. Will Dolly live to see her seventh birthday? Actually most cell divisions are used up during embryological development. Dolly's cells may peter out even earlier. This is critical because a 10-year-old sheep is considered elderly, and lambing and wool production decline in sheep after their seventh year. My guess though is that since Dolly's genes were reprogrammed from mammary cell functions to embryological functions, that the senescence clock was also reset back to the beginning. I expect Dolly to live a normal lifespan.

It is also uncertain as to whether Dolly will be reproductively fertile. Frogs cloned from tadpole cells are usually sterile. It is possible that while Dolly is normal anatomically, the cloning process may somehow interfere with the proper development of the reproductive cells. If this were the case, there may be other problems not immediately detectable. This will be answered this summer when Dolly reaches sexual maturity.

Can We Clone Humans?

While we have established that animal cloning may be permissible and even scientifically useful, what about cloning humans? First of all, is it feasible? Secondly, just because we can do it, should we? Should we even try?

At this point it is reasonable to assume that because the procedure works with sheep and possibly with cattle (the experiments with cattle are already underway), it should be perfectible with humans. This does not mean, however, that there may not be unique barriers to cloning humans as opposed to cloning sheep.

Some suggest that by using the particular procedure developed by the researchers in Scotland, sheep may be easier to clone. The reason is that sheep embryos do not employ the DNA in the nucleus until after 3 to 4 cell divisions. This may give the egg cell sufficient time to reprogram the DNA from mammary cell functions to egg cell functions. Human and mouse cells employ the nuclear DNA after only the second cell division. This may be why similar experiments have not worked in mice. Therefore, human cells and mouse cells may not be capable of being cloned because of this difference.

If this barrier does indeed exist, it is not necessarily insurmountable. The news of a cloned sheep was surprising enough that no one, including me, is now going to step out on the same sawed-off limb and predict that it can't eventually work with humans. I mentioned earlier that the procedure is so startlingly non-technical that there are numerous laboratories around the world that could immediately begin their own cloning research program with a minimum of investment and expertise. While I fully expect that many labs will begin studies on cloning other mammalian species besides sheep, I'm not so sure about humans.

In 1993, researchers here in the United States employed well known techniques to artificially twin human embryos. They immediately became embroiled in a firestorm of public scrutiny that they did not anticipate nor enjoy (see my earlier article, "Human Cloning: Have Human Beings Been Cloned?"). They were even criticized by other researchers in the field for jumping ahead without scrutinizing the ethical ramifications. The public reaction was no doubt very sobering to the rest of the scientific community. Many countries have already either completely banned experimentation in human cloning or at least imposed a temporary moratorium so that the ethical questions can be properly investigated before stepping ahead. Even the researchers in Scotland responsible for Dolly have plainly stated that they see no reason to pursue human cloning and are personally repulsed by the idea.

There are some in the scientific community, however, who feel that the ability to do something is reason enough to do it. But in this case, I believe that they are the minority. For example, molecular biologists imposed a moratorium of their own in the 70s when genetic technology was first being developed until critical questions could be answered. Also, while nuclear weapons have been produced for over 50 years, only two have been used and that was 52 years ago. Many are now being dismantled. These cases show us that human restraint, though rare, is possible.

So while it is reasonable to believe that humans can be cloned, and that someone, somewhere may try, the overall climate is so against it that I don't think we will see it announced anytime soon.

Why Clone Humans?

Overall, the public reaction has been negative toward cloning human beings, and this is rather curious in a culture that is admittedly post-Christian in orientation. Nevertheless, many people still want to draw a distinction between animals and humans.

As Christians we understand this desire because we assert that humans are made in the image of God and that animals are not. There is, therefore, a clear demarcation between animals and humans. But in an evolutionary view, humans are nothing special--just another animal species. The expected reaction was offered by an editorial in the Dallas Morning News (Monday, 3 March 1997, 9D) by Tom Siegfried which he titled: "It's hard to see a reason why a human Dolly is evil." He summarized his perspective when he said, "The ability to clone is part of gaining deeper knowledge of life itself. So Dolly should not be seen as scary, but as a signal that life still conceals many miracles for humans to discover." To the naturalist, any knowledge is valuable, and the means to obtain it is justified essentially by its benefit to society.

With this in mind, let's explore some of the reasons why people have suggested that human cloning is a worthwhile proposition and deal with some of the questions people are asking.

Concerns About Human Cloning

There is much that can be learned about human embryonic development by researching human cloning. While this is true, this is precisely the reasoning used by Nazi Germany to justify experimentation on Jews. Experiments were performed on exposure to cold, water, and other extreme conditions with human subjects, frequently to the point of death, because data on human subjects was deemed indispensable. Of course, we know now that animal models work just as well; consequently, there is no need to use human models to gain this type of data.

Will humans be cloned for spare parts? A few writers have suggested that some individuals may want to establish an embryonic clone to be frozen and put away. Then, in the event of a childhood disease requiring a transplant, the embryo can be thawed, implanted in a surrogate, and raised to a sufficient age for the spare organ to be harvested and transplanted. While this is certainly possible, I consider it very unlikely that these practices would be sanctioned by any government because it completely tosses aside the uniqueness of humanity and trashes the concept of human dignity. That doesn't mean, however, that someone won't try.

Will human cloning be used to replace a dying infant or child? This is certainly a possibility, but we need to ask if taking such a course of action is an appropriate way to deal with loss. Unrealistic expectations may be placed on a clone that would not be placed on a normally produced child. The cloned child may be the same genetically, but different in other respects. This could create more frustration than comfort.

Will humans be cloned to provide children for otherwise childless couples? This is the reason most often given for human cloning, yet the argument is unpersuasive when there are so many children that need adoption. Also, this devalues children to the level of a commodity. Also, if in vitro fertilization seems expensive at $5,000-8,000 a try, cloning will be more so.

Will human clones have souls? In my mind, they will be no different than an identical twin or a baby that results from in vitro fertilization. How a single fertilized egg splits in two to become two individuals is a similar mystery, but it happens.

Does cloning threaten genetic diversity? Excessive cloning may indeed deplete the genetic diversity of an animal population, leaving the population susceptible to disease and other disasters. But most biologists are aware of these problems, and I would not expect this to be a major concern unless cloning were the only means available to continue a species.

If the technique is perfected in animals first, will this save the tragic loss of fetal life that resulted from the early human experimentation with in vitro fertilization? In vitro fertilization was perfected in humans before it was known how effective a procedure it would be. This resulted in many wasted human beings in the embryonic stages. The success rate is still only 10 to 20%. The success rate of normal fertilization and implantation is around 33 to 50%. While animal models will help, there will be unique aspects to human development that can only be known and overcome by direct human experimentation which does not respect the sanctity of human life.

Cloning provides a means for lesbians to have children as a couple. One supplies the nucleus and the other provides the egg. The egg does contain some unique genetic material in the mitochondria that are not contributed by sperm or nucleus. One cell from each partner is fused together to create a new individual, though all the nuclear genetic material comes from only one cell. The real question is whether this is the proper environment for any child to grow up in. (For more information on this topic, see Sue Bohlin's essay, "Homosexual Myths.") Homosexual "marriages" are not really marriages in the normal understanding of the term, and the technological hoops that must be jumped through for any gay couple to have children should be a clear warning that something is wrong with the whole arrangement.

Are human clones unique individuals? Even identical twins manage to forge their own identity. The same would be true of clones. In fact, this may argue strongly against the usefulness of cloning since we can never reproduce all the life experiences that have molded a particular personality. The genes will be the same, but the environment and the spirit will not.

All together, I find the prospect of animal cloning potentially useful. But I wonder if the procedure is as perfectible as some hope. It may end up being an inefficient process to achieve the desired result. Human cloning is fraught with too many possible difficulties, from the waste of human fetal life during research and development to the commercializing of human babies (see my previous Human Cloning article) with far too little potential advantage to individuals and society. What there is to learn about embryonic development through cloning experiments can be learned through animal experimentation. The cloning of adult human beings is an unnecessary and unethical practice that should be strongly discouraged if not banned altogether.

©1997 Probe Ministries


About the Author

Dr. Ray BohlinRaymond G. Bohlin is Vice President of Vision Outreach at Probe Ministries. He is a graduate of the University of Illinois (B.S., zoology), North Texas State University (M.S., population genetics), and the University of Texas at Dallas (M.S., Ph.D., molecular biology). He is the co-author of the book The Natural Limits to Biological Change, served as general editor of Creation, Evolution and Modern Science, co-author of Basic Questions on Genetics, Stem Cell Research and Cloning (The BioBasics Series), and has published numerous journal articles. Dr. Bohlin was named a Research Fellow of the Discovery Institute's Center for the Renewal of Science and Culture in 1997, 2000 and 2012.

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