In Woody Allen's 1973 film Sleeper, scientists proposed to "grow" a complete copy of a human being from a tiny piece of one nose. Back then, it was a futuristic joke.
More than 20 years later, when Jurassic Park hit the screen, the idea of cloning a living dinosaur from a bit of prehistoric DNA seemed less laughable -- somehow, almost possible.
But it was the bleating of a sheep, and not the roar of a T-rex, that ushered in this brave new world. In 1997, Scottish scientists created Dolly, the first animal in history successfully cloned from another.
Soon after Dolly came another sheep, Molly. Then goats were cloned, and a prize bull.
"It's a genie that got out of the bottle, and it needs to be bottled sensibly and responsibly," says Dr. Panayiotis Zavos, a fertility specialist from Kentucky. He thinks he knows where cloning is headed. In January, he and his colleagues made the announcement that some welcomed, and others feared: They were trying to clone a human being..
The same basic technique for cloning farm animals, he says, could be used for humans:
First, an egg is harvested from a donor. The nucleus of the egg, which contains the mother's DNA, or genetic blueprint, is removed, leaving, in effect, a "blank" egg.
Doctors then take a single living cell (a skin cell, for example) from a person to be cloned and place it alongside the blank egg. The egg and cell are zapped with electricity, fusing them together. Science jump starts nature. The electricity acts to "fertilize" the egg, and a new life begins.
If successful, the clone will be the genetic identical twin to the parent whose cell was inserted into the egg.
Thanks in part to Hollywood, the word "cloning" conjures up all sorts of images: the ability to create an "army" of clones, to manufacture an unlimited number of photocopied human beings. But, in reality, cloning is likely to be used in ways far less sensational and far more humane.
"I think cloning has one real scientific use, which is to overcome fertility, and it can be used by people who are unable to produce sperm or eggs, and it can allow them to have a biological child," says Dr. Lee Silver, a molecular biologist at Princeton University. He has done extensive research in human cloning, and his conclusion is: Any fears of a world full of identical copies of people are unreasonable.
He adds, "Cloning, in my mind, is not a big deal. Already, children are born who look like one parent or another just by chance; 'He's a chip off the old block.' And when a clone is born, he won't be more than that."
Is it possible that we could clone Dr. Silver and have a copy of him on the outside, but, on the inside, instead of being a Princeton biologist, he would be a bank robber?
Yes," says Dr. Silver.
Or a mass murderer?
Since he announced his intention to clone a human, Dr. Zavos has received hundreds of emails, looking for help, not all of them from infertile couples.
There's another, potentially more troubling group interested in cloning: People who are desperately trying to bring back the dead.
"I don't think there will ever be closure for me, losing a child. My heart aches every day of the world," says Marion, 77, a retired teacher from Georgia, who asked that we not use her last name.
Three years ago her son, Matthew, who owned a tree-trimming business, died in a fall. He was 37 years old.
"One of the cliches I could not stand to hear was, 'It was God's will,' and I thought, 'No. God did not look down and say, "Matt, you're going to fall today." If He had, He could have caught him.' It was an accident."
Marion is a former biology teacher and, within two days of her son's death, it occurred to her that she should try to have Matthew cloned. He had been an organ donor, so Marion called the organ bank and asked that some of his tissue be preserved.
"I felt like, 'What could come in the future?' and to at least save it and see... With each child, you become so close, they're a part of you, that you want that particular child back," Marion explains.
"Probably the most moving scenario is to say, 'I'm bringing back my lost child,'" says Dr. Arthur Caplan, head of the Department of Bioethics at the University of
Pennsylvania. Unrealistic hopes for cloning, he says, will only make it harder to accept the finality of death.
"What worries me," says Dr. Caplan, "is that it does unsettle people who think, 'I can't come to terms with loss, or death, or grief. Maybe I could do something that would keep things going, bring something back.' I think cloning can be cruel, because it holds out the hope that nothing ever ends."
Cloning can also be cruel, worries Dr. Caplan, to the person who is created in someone else's image: "'We had a child, and it died, so we had another child, and we had you because we wanted to replace Johnny or little Susie.' You feel, 'What? 'What am I? I'm my own person! And not a substitute or recreation.'"
Once scientists start copying genes, ethicists worry they are that much closer to engineering genes. And that, they worry could affect the evolution of the human species.
"When you go beyond cloning, it could have an enormous effect on humankind," explains Dr. Silver. "Going beyond cloning means not just replicating genes that already exist; it means adding new genes, making genetic enhancements, and now we're talking about something that has enormous implications."
But as far as creating an army of clones, even if the technology was perfected, there's no guarantee that people who look alike will act alike. It would take years of condiioning and, Dr. Caplan says, it just wouldn't be worth the trouble.
"if you want a mercenary army, hire one," he says. "Breeding one would take a long time, and my hunch is they won't turn out to do what you want them to do anyway."
And if the technological, psychological, and ethical drawbacks seem daunting, there is another, perhaps more forbidding obstacle to cloning: the cost, in flesh and blood.
Says Dr. Caplan, "We look and see Dolly in her pen, and she appears on the evening news, and she pops up in magazines, and she looks OK. But the price of Dolly was carnage."
It took Scottish researchers 277 tries to create Dolly, the first cloned animal. That's 276 deaths. When sheep are involved, that's called an experiment. When humans are involved, some call it a crime.
"The right response to anyone who would look at what it took to create Dolly in terms of failure rates, dead animals, stillborns, and try that in people is to arrest them!" Dr. Caplan asserts. "That's it!! It's just criminal, human experimentation."
But the experimentation is going on, and not just by mainstream researchers like Dr. Zavos.
At a secret location somewhere in the United States, scientists funded by the "Ralians," a religious group who believe aliens cloned the first human beings, are trying to clone a 10-month-old baby boy who died last year. With at least 50 female members willing to donate eggs and act as surrogate mothers, the Ralians can't be ignored.
Some scientists worry of a possible backlash, if a cult produces the first human clone.
Says Dr. Caplan, "What's worrisome is that people are going to say, 'We can't control anything here! Let's turn back from the genetic revolution. Let's ban it. Let's stop funding it. The thing is dangerous! Cults have it! Nuts have it! Who knows where this is going?'"
Wherever it is going, whoever gets there first, most scientists agree: Someday soon, a clone will be born. They also agree: It won't be the end of the world.
Dr. Silver: "I predict that in 20 years, when all the fuss has died down and we understand what cloning can and can't do, it will be just one more reproductive technique, like in-vitro fertilization, to help infertile people have babies. It has no other purpose."
Dr. Caplan: "Once people understand what it can do, it isn't going to be of much interest to people, if you want me to bet. Sex! Sex turns out to be a lot more fun way to make people than cloning."
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