Molly, the girl?

Science is probably going to ensure that people will be cloned eventually as was Dolly, the sheep?

Published: Sunday 15 March 1998

-- Richard Seed is an expert on seeds. Twenty years ago he used to transfer embryos from one cow to another. Then he began to use the same techniques on women. Then he shocked the world by announcing that he would like to clone human babies for desperate couples. This brought the world to the physicist's Chicago-based clinic.

Seed has the reputation of being a maverick, who neither has the financial muscle nor the scientific tools to make persons in their own image. But he has forced the world to think about his plans, for it is only a matter of time before someone actually does the unthinkable, not necessarily create a race of Hitlers, Napoleons and Caesars, but clone somebody.

And they will do it too, despite a pantheon of laws banning human cloning, simply because they will be remembered for doing so.

The little bits of technology which can be brought together to produce a human clone are already being developed in private clinics in the west for medical purposes. The study of aids has come a long way in helping develop techniques to transfer a nucleus from one monkey's cell to another which will enable scientists to one day monkey around with human genes.

Scientists can always say that even nature clowns around at times to produce its own version of a clone, the identical twin. So why the hullabaloo if someone tries to come up with a girl called Molly, who looks suspiciously like our very own Madhuri Dixit, the Indian clone of Cindy Crawford.

Cloning takes place when the nucleus of a cell is transferred into another which has been stripped off all its genetic material. Of late science is making rapid advances in this field. Don Wolf of the Oregon Regional Primate Center in Beaverton in the usa, who is working on the cloning of primates has been quoted as saying, in not so many words, that if this can be done on monkeys, it can also be done on humans.

In fact research is already taking place at the Cornell Medical Centre in New York, on the transfer of nuclei from damaged human cells to healthy immature cells, to find out whether they will divide in a healthy manner and form mature eggs. The same technique may be used one day to grow eggs in culture for women who have damaged ovaries. This could then be mixed with sperm to form an embryo.

If this technique is perfected it could be extended in a manner to form human clones rather than just human babies. Even though the much harried us President Bill Clinton, is trying to put a five-year moratorium on this form of human reproduction, experts in the us feel that the world has already begun the march towards the human clone. Particularly since human cloning is not barred by law in some countries.

Cloning of humans may be done for a totally different purpose too. Embryos may be cloned and kept in deep freeze to provide organs or tissue to their living counterparts in times of a healthcare crisis. This could put an end to the problem of organ rejections during transplants. Therefore cloning could actually turn out to be a weapon in the arsenal of medical science.

In the meanwhile, Seed has sown the seeds of an idea that human cloning is the ultimate answer to childless couples seeking to pass on their genes. And childless couples will go to any length to do this, for this is human nature. At present couples have the option of accepting a donation of sperm or egg to have a child half their own. There will always be the odd couple who would wish to have a child which is a clone of one of them. There will also be the megalomaniac, the industrialist, the mad dictator or the mad scientist who will try to make a clone of himself to bequeath his wealth and knowledge.

Imagine clones of Clinton competing for the presidential chair or running around in the White House, or a bevy of Madhuri Dixits flocking to Bollywood in search of a career, or a school of Cindy Crawfords walking down the ramp. This is moving into the realm of science fiction and probably will not happen. The exercise would be self defeating.

But human cloning could most definitely be the next step in reproduction technology as it would satisfy a basic human need, the desire to pass on whatever you have earned in this life to your next of kin. And who can be closer in blood, than a clone of yourself. If Richard Seed manages to pull it off, it will be the cloning glory of his career and he will go down in posterity as the person who sowed the seeds of human cloning in the world.

However, monkeying around with human genes is not an easy task. Nor was cloning Dolly a piece of cake. To make Dolly nearly 277 cloned cells were implanted into temporary wombs to identify those that would develop normally. Less than 30, to be precise 29, matured to be transferred to more than a dozen surrogate mothers. Dolly was the sole survivor. The others failed to survive gestation or died shortly after birth from some abnormality or cardiovascular problems.

Perhaps Seed's plans to set up a cloning clinic may go to seed rather than fructify, the failure rate being so high. But that will not stop him from trying and there is always competition waiting in the wings.

The chances are that somebody will beat him to it. Cloning of humans appears only a matter of time. Once again human society will have to deal with a new technological genie. How the technology is used will depend on humans.

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