A scientific achievement and an important ethical question

This is the first of two posts, today, on societal issues.

The Toronto Sun reports that “For the first time, researchers have used the cloning technique that produced Dolly the sheep to create healthy monkeys, bringing science an important step closer to being able to do the same with humans.

Since Dolly’s birth in 1996,” the article says, “scientists have cloned nearly two dozen kinds of mammals, including dogs, cats, pigs, cows and polo ponies, and have also created human embryos with this method. But until now, they have been unable to make babies this way in primates, the category that includes monkeys, apes and people … [and] … The barrier of cloning primate species is now overcome,” declared Muming Poo of the Chinese Academy of Sciences in Shanghai.” (My emphasis added.)

DUUkKMFX0AAmoSHThe article says that “In a paper released Wednesday by the journal Cell,” which appears to be a very reputable, peer reviewed scientific journal, “he and his colleagues announced that they successfully created two macaques. The female baby monkeys, about 7 and 8 weeks old, are named Zhong Zhong and Hua Hua.

It is a notable achievement.

But, “Poo said the feat shows that the cloning of humans is theoretically possible. But he said his team has no intention of doing that. Mainstream scientists generally oppose making human babies by cloning, and Poo said society would ban it for ethical reasons.

According to a fact sheet published by the US Department of Energy and National Institutes of Health‘s Human Genome Project, “Therapeutic cloning, also called “embryo cloning,” is the production of human embryos for use in research. The goal of this process is not to create cloned human beings, but rather to harvest stem cells that can be used to study human development and to treat disease. Stem cells are important to biomedical researchers because they can be used to generate virtually any type of specialized cell in the human body. Stem cells are extracted from the egg after it has divided for 5 days. The egg at this stage of development is called a blastocyst. The extraction process destroys the embryo, which raises a variety of ethical concerns. Many researchers hope that one day stem cells can be used to serve as replacement cells to treat heart disease, Alzheimer’s, cancer, and other diseases. See more on the potential use of cloning in organ transplants.

There seem to be fewer ethical concerns about the therapeutic cloning of some human cells than with the notion of either reproductive cloning or cloning to, de facto, make a person (genetically) immortal.

The Chinese break-trough was complex and difficult, “the Chinese scientists removed the DNA-containing nucleus from monkey eggs and replaced it with DNA from the monkey fetus … [and then] … these reconstituted eggs grew and divided, finally becoming an early embryo, which was then placed into female monkeys to grow to birth,” and very inefficient, especially in terms of the large the number of eggs used (127 to get two monkeys); in humans that would mean ” suffering caused by the many lost pregnancies the process entails.”

The American Medical Association has issued papers explaining why, in its view, human cloning is neither practical, yet, nor ethically desirable. I’m guessing that the AMA reflects the global mainstream of scientific opinion.

Emmeline_Pankhurst,_seated_(1913)Stalin_Josef_1943Perhaps the biggest argument against human reproductive cloning is that one cannot reproduce a “person” by, simply, reproducing her or his genes ~ a “person,” Emmeline Pankhurst or Albert Einstein orJoseph Stalin, without duplicating the societal environments (and there were many) which shaped them. So, in fact, reproductive cloning is, largely, pointless … except as the Chinese scientists explain to create laboratory test animals.

Despite the shouts of many groups, like PETA, I believe that cloning is “good” science and that therapeutic cloning has an important role in modern science and medicine and should be encouraged in Canada.

 

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