Experts say Clonaid isn’t likely to have cloned baby

Media attention may spur action to limit science

Scientists knowledgeable about the process of cloning animals say they doubt the Canadian-based group Clonaid actually has produced a cloned human baby, as the sect announced Dec. 27. But, some experts say, the publicity generated by the claim may push lawmakers to restrict scientific research into both reproductive and therapeutic cloning.

"From what we can see now, it looks like a hoax," says Gerard Magill, PhD, director of the Center for Health Care Ethics at St. Louis Univer-sity. "They are not a scientifically reputable body and have yet to come forward with any data. Given the difficulty of the technology, it is extraordinarily unlikely they could accomplish such a goal."

But their claim does raise the specter of the birth of a human clone as realistic possibility, he adds.

"It does raise the issue of human cloning as something that is on the scientific landscape," Magill says. "If not them, then someone could. We know there are scientists with the expertise — fertility experts who are working on this."

The immediate fallout may likely be a ban on reproductive cloning in the United States, he predicts.

"I think there is the same unanimity of opposition to reproductive cloning in the nation today as there was 20 years ago," he says. "It wasn’t a policy issue then because it was hardly possible. But not until 1997 did it become possible. Now, with it being on the landscape and there being such hype in the media about the claim, that is the kind of thing that spurs lawmakers."

Scientists condemn alleged attempts

While many cloning experts expressed doubts about the validity of the claim, others renewed their objections to any attempts to clone humans while efforts to produce cloned animals still prove very unstable.

"All of the reports from cloning experiments describe a high incidence of late abortion or the birth of dead animals," said Randall Prather, MD, PhD, distinguished professor of reproductive biotechnology at the University of Missouri-Columbia, on Jan. 6. "When live cloned offspring have been produced, many have been subject to abnormalities that were apparent only after birth. These abnormalities include premature death at different ages, respiratory failure, absence of an immune response, and inadequate kidney function."

Such problems are believed to be the a consequence of inappropriate gene expression resulting from incomplete "reprogramming" of the adult cell used in cloning, he continued. "There is absolutely no reason to expect the situation to be different in humans."

Prather’s statement was jointly signed by two other cloning experts, Gerald Schatten, MD, professor and vice chair of obstetrics, gynecology and reproductive sciences, and cell biology-physiology at the University of Pittsburgh School of Medicine; and Ian Wilmut, MD, an embryologist at the Roslin Institute in Edinburgh, Scotland. Wilmut was part of the team of scientists who cloned the sheep, Dolly, the world’s first cloned animal.

"Furthermore, human brain development is far more complex than in animals," Prather continued. "The neuropsychiatric consequences for cloned children might be devastating. Until there is compelling and scientifically validated evidence that the situation is different in human embryos, it is grossly irresponsible to attempt to clone children."

All three scientists called on lawmakers in different countries to enact "responsible" human reproductive cloning legislation.

What constitutes responsible restriction?

However, the secretive Clonaid announcement is only continuing to cloud the public debate on the ethical challenges raised by reproductive and therapeutic cloning, says Celia Fisher, PhD, director of the Center for Ethics Education at Fordham University in Bronx, NY, and bioethicist-in-residence at Yale University in New Haven, CT.

"Major ethical considerations for reproductive cloning involve: a) the immediate and potentially long-term health risks for the child since there procedure has not been perfected in animals; b) the risks to human species, in that widespread cloning would reduce the genetic variability of humans that allow us to have populations that include members with diverse genetic makeup — some of whom will be capable of adapting or surviving new environmental, health, or social events that may arise; and c) since our society has already endorsed other artificial methods of reproduction, there is no essential need in society for cloning as a form of reproduction, per se," Fisher says.

But the ethical issues for therapeutic cloning are different, she explains.

In therapeutic cloning a fertilized egg is not implanted in a womb, but whether the embryo itself is a human life still is an issue for ethical debate.

The reason for therapeutic cloning is not to produce a new living being, but to produce genetic material to be used to help the survival of others.

"The judgment of whether the fertilized embryo is a human life will further effect the ethicality of therapeutic cloning: if the embryo is a life, then one is using that life simply as a means to further another’s ends," she says. "If it is not a life, then we are using genetic material to save the life of others."

The attention given to the Clonaid claim continues to blur the distinction between the separate issues.

"I think the burden of proof is on Clonaid to provide opportunity for independent and objective tests of whether they have produced a cloned child," Fisher states. "Otherwise, their claims should be considered bogus."

Science has interest in validating claim

The scientific community will not want to waste energy and attention on a hoax, if that is what the Clonaid announcement proves to be, but is interested in ensuring that any tests of the claim proceed in an objective and valid way, predicts Magill.

"The scientific community is very anxious to offer its services to do the necessary DNA testing in a reliable way," he says. "That would involve a complicated series of tests on the DNA, it might involve mitochondrial DNA, and testing would have to be performed at different labs to ensure there was no overlap. The DNA of the parents and baby would have to be kept completely separate. In other words, I think the scientific community is ready to put all of its muscle into doing very objective scientific analysis."

However, there first has to be some evidence that baby Eve exists, and that her parents are willing to undergo the necessary testing.

"I think the scientific community is going to pay a lot of attention to this because they realize that there is more than a potential hoax here," Magill says. "There are multiple groups trying to do this, and they all want to know if it is possible. However, at the same time, they will want to be extraordinarily careful not to have their name complicit with a hoax."

Sources

  • Celia Fisher, PhD, Director, Center for Ethics Education, Fordham University, Department of Psychology, Dealy Hall, 441 E. Fordham Road, Bronx, NY 10458.
  • Gerard Magill, PhD, Center for Health Care Ethics, St. Louis University, 3545 Lafayette Ave., St. Louis, MO 63108-1099.