Humans may follow

Last Updated: Sunday 28 June 2015

" a human being born of clonal reproduction will most likely appear on the Earth within the next 20 to 50 years, and even sooner if some nation should actively promote the venture," said Nobel laureate James D Watson in 1971. Nobody took him seriously until the announcement of the birth of Dolly, the first adult cloned sheep, in February 27, 1997.

The birth of Dolly set off a debate which reached the peak in January this year when an eccentric us scientist Richard Seed announced a scheme to start a commercial human cloning clinic in Chicago. A physicist by training, Seed has been running a company to help infertile women conceive by using embryo transfer techniques. His proposal met with predictable reactions of bewilderment, indignation and condemnation. Seed has realised that the demand for cloning will come from the powerful desire of humans to have their own children.

What many people failed to see all these years was the slow but steady development in cloning technology. The use of laboratory or farm animals has brought science closer to making the cloning of humans a reality. Some experts consider human cloning feasible within as little as five years. It does not cost a fortune to do it and the financial returns are lucrative enough for even small research outfits to have a crack at the problem.

The creators of Dolly were outdone in July 1998 by an international team of scientists of the University of Hawaii. They reported the creation of multiple clones and clones of those clones -- 50 identical mice. This group is the first to duplicate mammals in a reproducible fashion. Although several researchers have formed single clones from adult animals in recent years -- most notably, Dolly -- none produced as many genetically matching new animals at once turning cloning into an accomplished fact and accessible technique.

Researchers from the University of Wisconsin, usa , went a step further by teasing out clumps of cells from human embryos and induced them to burst out into veritable cellular symphony. They could create at will most of the 210 kinds of cells found in the human body. This cloning of human cells is expected to revolutionise transplantation medicine and promises replacement parts for the old and the sick.

Meanwhile, mice stem cells (cells that are yet to be differentiated) injected into the mice's heart and nerve cells slipped into into the mice's brains have already made themselves at home, making the necessarily functional connections. The day is not far off when cardiomyocytes or heart muscle cells can replace scar tissues that forms after a heart attack. Or nerve cells that could take the place of the damaged or lost neurons in the brain either due to an injury or due to diseases like Alzheimer's disease or Parkinson's. A clump of islet cells that can provide a lifetime relief from diabetes. And miles of skin from fibroblasts and keratocytes cloned from foetal cells that would help heal serious burns.

In the recent past too, many bits of the technology needed to produce a human clone are already being developed through totally legitimate methods like helping infertile mothers to conceive or study difficult diseases. Last July, the Institute of Reproductive Medicine and Science, New Jersey, usa , reported that an infertile woman gave birth after one of her eggs was treated by adding cytoplasm from the eggs of a younger donor and fertilising it with sperm from the infertile woman's husband.

In fact, this is precisely why Seed's proposed clinic could well be a success as there will always be people who want a clone. Experience worldwide shows that infertile couples may go to any extent to pass on their genes. With the problem of infertility rising the world over and given that the alternative is to accept a donation of a sperm or egg, and to have a child that is genetically half their own, any couplewould prefer to try for a child who is a clone of one of them.
A long way to go Will human cloning be possible in the near future? Though some optimistic scientists feel otherwise, human cloning is still a long way off with formidable methodological barriers. People are still wary and afraid of scientists playing "God" and the fear that with such a tool, a lunatic may look for Hitler's dna . Yet, for all its hype, cloning is a very inefficient means of reproduction. Dolly took more than 400 attempts, including 28 miscarriages. A success rate of one to 100 will be totally unacceptable for humans, and pose serious ethical problems. The first hurdle is to improve cloning efficiency. And, of course, the issue of safety of the babies born. There is yet an unknown but serious risk of "ageing dna " present in the cloned humans. Such children could well have an accelerated ageing process.

Nevertheless, many consider the risks of efficient cloning almost certainly lower than those encountered in the effective inbreeding of consanguineous marriages, seen in many societies in India. More importantly, there are no scientific grounds per se for banning cloning. Even putting the scientific risks aside, many opponents take the shelter of moral or social grounds on obscure and incorrect assumptions.

But there could be benefits from trying. Cloning research would certainly push the frontiers of human knowledge and considerably broaden our understanding of embryology that would have far-reaching implications for human well being. As also knowledge into the biology of dna damage and repair, the process of parental imprinting and its role in early development. Given the complexity of human traits, will the laboratory versions of Amartya Sen or Viswanathan Anand be as brilliant?

There could be potential benefits from cloning full human beings. Ruth Deech, chairperson of the Human Fertilisation and Embryology Authority, uk , recently spelt these out before the Commons Science and Technology Committee. She firmly ruled out the production of human beings as "banks" to provide organs or bone marrow for transplant, or as "consolation" for bereaved parents who wished to reproduce a beloved child. But, she said, it was essential to retain flexibility in the law to accommodate future scientific developments.

There are no laws on human cloning in India. As a first step towards that direction, the Indian Council of Medical Research ( icmr ) is finalising comprehensive ethical guidelines on such experiments involving humans which includes cloning under the chairmanship of Justice M N Venkatachaliah. Vasanta Muthuswamy, ethics expert of icmr , who is steering this national debate, says that the consensus so far has been towards a ban on human cloning in India. However, research aimed towards cloning of organs may be permitted. These guidelines are expected to be taken to the government for making the necessary legislation.
Human cloning thus requires a simple and pragmatic decision. In any case, if the current trend of research continues, scientist-entrepreneurs like Seed will have the last laugh.

V Satyanarayan is a scientist with the Indian Council of Medical Research, New Delhi

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