Arikia Millikan: Brave New World? Not really.

BY ARIKIA MILLIKAN

Published January 29, 2008

Cloning. Are you afraid yet? America sure is.

While this two-syllable word immediately instills imagery of mad scientists cackling as they create armies of Hitler replicas who will revive the Third Reich, it is also a word used to describe a scientific process that isn't nearly as exciting: the transferring of genes from one cell to another. Yet when a private research company, Stemagen, announced that it successfully made cellular clones of two human men earlier this month, politicians, media fear-mongers and the Vatican took it upon themselves to blend dystopian sci-fi fantasies with what was actually a pretty minor accomplishment that happened years ago.

From all of the hysteria, one might think that the products of the procedure were two walking, talking adults who could have passed for the guys who donated their DNA if you saw them on the street. But what actually resulted were a few unfertilized egg cells whose own genetic material had been emptied out and replaced with that from skin cells of the men, making a kind of patchwork embryo. The cells were allowed to divide for a few days, and then their growth was halted. Researchers want to be able to grow the cells - which are referred to in the scientific community as nuclear transfer products (not clones) - into something they can collect stem cells from. But this lab didn't accomplish that yet and neither has any other, although it is theoretically possible.

What is not possible anywhere on the planet we live on, however, is to produce an army of adult replicas from this procedure. The point of doing nuclear transfer is so doctors can someday treat patients who have crippling diseases by transplanting genetically identical tissue to them that their bodies won't reject. This process is called therapeutic cloning, and it doesn't involve aborted fetuses - contrary to what some politicians might think. Yet, many Americans have heard this buzzword and made the illogical leap that researchers are attempting to conduct reproductive cloning, which is the sci-fi nightmare that's so fun to fantasize about.

Ann Curry, a news anchor on NBC's "Today" show, frantically grilled the show's medical expert the day after Stemagen's announcement. "It sounds as though (reproductive cloning) could have happened had these embryos been implanted in a woman's womb," she ranted. Credible newspapers like The Washington Post jumped on the bandwagon as well, claiming that this new discovery (which was also discovered four years ago), "offered sobering evidence that few, if any, technical barriers may remain to the creation of cloned babies."

But there are several barriers that continue to prevent science fiction from becoming science reality. Sean Morrison, the director of the University's Center for Stem Cell Biology said the slope isn't quite as slippery as people think. He pointed out that the eggs the adult DNA is being transferred into in this procedure are not fertilized. While the transferred genetic material does have two sets of chromosomes because its adult donor did, the resulting cell is not going through any kind of normal development. When the most famous product of reproductive cloning was born, Dolly the sheep had all sorts of genetic problems and eventually died a tragic death at the age of six. But the problems began long before her birth. When researchers tried to clone Dolly's mother, it took almost 300 attempts with 300 different eggs before a viable embryo was ever produced.

"If somebody actually tried to do this in humans, you wouldn't wake up and have a dozen clones on CNN, you would have this abnormally high rate of miscarriages among scores of women who would have to agree to participate in these experiments," Dr. Morrison told me.

But for the skeptics who remain, there is one more point to be made: If it were possible to make the kind of clones you see on the "The X-Files," somebody would have to make them. But who wants to do such a thing? According to Dr. Morrison, no one does.

"Virtually all scientists and scientific societies have gone on record as opposing reproductive cloning and saying that it should be banned," he said. "In states like Michigan, it's against the law, and nobody has suggested that it should be otherwise. So people shouldn't have this impression that there's a subset of crazy scientists out there who just can't wait to try this."

While it is fun to fantasize about where science might lead the human race, uninformed sources have been periodically distorting the facts and leading the public down a line of hysterical thinking. It's crucially important to ethical medical progress to remember that some aspects of science fiction are still just that - fiction.

Arikia Millikan is a former Daily news reporter. She can be reached at arikia@umich.edu.