By Lisa Seachrist
WASHINGTON — Ian Wilmut, the Scottish scientist who made headlines by cloning an adult sheep, was the star witness at a U.S. Senate hearing to discuss the scientific and ethical implications of the recent advances in cloning technology.
Wilmut, of the Roslin Institute in Edinburgh, was joined by National Institutes of Health Director Harold Varmus and a panel of ethicists and industry representatives at a hearing conducted by the Subcommittee on Public Health and Safety of the Senate's Committee on Labor and Human Resources.
Subcommittee chairman Bill Frist (R-Tenn.) said that before Congress can determine the proper role of the federal government in regulating this research, "we must understand the underlying science and explore all of the medical implications, social implications and ethical
implications it holds for the future."
Sen. Christopher Bond (R-Mo.) has already introduced S. 368 to permanently ban the use of federal money for research into human cloning.
Frist, however, spoke for the vast majority of the subcommittee when he stated his opposition to human cloning, but his unwillingness to endanger other medical advances in the process.
"Can you write a bill so narrowly that you can ban research on human cloning without impacting other legitimate types of medical research?" Frist asked. "If we are going to endanger that research, I am opposed to that bill."
Tom Harkin (D-Iowa) agreed with Frist's sentiment, but vehemently disagreed with the notion that human cloning was inherently repugnant noting that, "I, for one, expect to see cloning take place in my lifetime and I look forward to that day."
The Pros And Cons. . .
"It is our human nature to ask questions. I don't think it is legitimate for us to try to stop this inquiry," Harkin said. "And, for those who say stop, we can't play God here, I say they can join sides with Pope Paul V who tried to stop Galileo."
Wilmut and Varmus testified to the fact that the current inefficiencies of the cloning techniques put human cloning far into the future. In addition, the scientists noted that there were many questions to answer about the biological nature of the clone.
Varmus pointed out that while many have compared cloning to having a twin, a clone and its donor would in fact be less similar than a set of naturally-occurring identical twins. Because the egg is the sole source of mitochondrial DNA which resides outside the nucleus, a clone could only be identical to its DNA donor if the donor also served as the source of the egg.
In addition, Varmus noted that because the DNA transferred to the enucleated egg comes from an adult, "the donor cell has a long history of chemical and possibly mutational changes that could make the donor cell and clone different."
Wilmut agreed and noted that using adult DNA may result in genetic abnormalities. Out of the 277 "reconstructed" embryos that the Scottish researchers produced, they only implanted 29 into surrogate sheep and only one of those developed into a live lamb. Previous work using embryos showed that three out of five of the lambs died shortly after birth and harbored developmental abnormalities.
Both Varmus and Wilmut agreed that human cloning is repugnant, but that animal cloning research could prove vital to the development of new drugs and new animal models of human disease.
"I personally have yet to hear of an application for human cloning that I find ethically acceptable," Wilmut said. "But, it is important not to throw this particular baby out with the bath water."
"My own view is that legislation and science don't mix very well," Varmus said. "And, we are not in a situation of crisis where it is necessary to enact legislation immediately. I shudder when I hear of legislation to ban cloning research because that term is open to interpretation."
Varmus and Wilmut described possible medical uses that could be considered for cloning. For example, taking skin cells and de-differentiating them, genetically modifying them to have a gene that was resistant to chemotherapy and re-differentiating them to produce blood cells for use during bone marrow transplantation.
Law professor R. Alta Charo, of the University of Wisconsin, in Madison, and member of the National Bioethics Advisory Commission, noted that cloning could allow some people to see every adult human cell as equivalent to a fertilized egg: capable of producing new human life. While noting it wasn't very likely, Charo said that view could change the whole face of medical research.
. . . And The Ethical Dilemmas
"More likely, the discussion on human cloning offers us new approaches in our efforts to balance respect for human embryonic life with medical and scientific advances possible through that research," Charo said.
George Annas, a bioethicist at Boston University School of Public Health, noted that creating cloned humans could change the way that we value human beings. He pointed out that producing copies of dying or dead children may seem like a compassionate use of human cloning. "In doing that we risk viewing children as an interchangeable commodity," he said.
Karen Rothenberg, a law professor at the University of Maryland School of Law, in Baltimore, said cloning takes away some of the very essence of what it means to be human. "It humbles us to say that it takes at least two to procreate," she said.
"In addition to the ethical dilemmas unique to cloning, we still have difficulty determining whose rights to respect with respect to surrogate mothers," Rothenberg said. "Cloning will almost necessitate surrogacy."
The debate over the ethics of cloning research will continue this week as the National Bioethics Advisory Commission discusses cloning today and Friday in an effort to report back to President Clinton by the end of May.
When asked what was the greatest misunderstanding about cloning research, Wilmut said, "The idea that you could bring a person back. A clone isn't the same person." *