Send in the Clones?

This article originally appeared in Food & Water Journal, Spring 1997

This past winter, a group of scientists in Edinburgh, Scotland accomplished a feat that has long been speculated about but never before realized: they produced the first living clone of an adult mammal. The world’s media were saturated with photos of this unique newborn sheep, a ewe genetically unrelated to its birth mother, but a nearly exact genetic copy of a six-year-old pregnant ewe of an entirely different breed. The public reaction was immediate, as people faced the staggering implications of this newly unleashed technology. The biotechnology industry’s spin doctors immediately set to work to reassure everyone that this did not mean that cloning of human beings was the around the corner. Even President Clinton, who has been thoroughly beholden to the biotechnology industry since his first year in office, promised that human cloning would be banned. But these various public relations maneuvers largely obscure both the scientific meaning of this experiment, and its significance for the immediate future.

Cloning animals has been a goal of biotechnologists ever since genetic engineering and test tube fertilization first came together in a laboratory, but previous experiments had never quite succeeded. While mice bred for research—genetically programmed with disabled immune systems and heightened susceptibility to specific diseases—have been artificially reproduced from embryos since the early 1980s, adult animals seemed uniquely resistant to being cloned. For years, scientists have been trying to clone adult frogs, only to find that the clones were unable to grow beyond the tadpole stage. Perhaps, some scientists speculated, changes in the genetic makeup of cells at the earliest stages of embryonic development deprive adult cells of the full complement of genetic information they would need to make cloning possible.

The work of Dr. Ian Wilmut and his Scottish colleagues put this concern permanently to rest. Cloning animals is now not only possible, but it has been done. The floodgates are open. Welcome to the Brave New World of animal biotechnology.

Dr. Wilmut’s experiments are clearly of far more than academic interest, however. He and his colleagues are on the staff of two closely cooperating organizations, one a research institute sponsored by the British biotechnology industry and the other a Scottish pharmaceutical company called PPL Therapeutics. Both have a proprietary stake in experiments to develop genetically engineered animals that secrete prized pharmaceutical products in their milk. Such experiments are underway in the U.S., as well, most notably on a farm just west of Boston that was purchased in 1995 by the Genzyme Transgenics Corporation.

Researchers have successfully added genes for drug synthesis to goats and sheep embryos, but this is a difficult and highly uncertain undertaking. Their goal is to be able to produce a few animals with the desired genetic modifications, obtain a patent (yes, a patent) on these animals, and then reproduce them en masse by cloning. Drugs would then be extracted from the milk, perhaps much more easily and efficiently than the same drugs are now isolated from various cell cultures and biochemical brews. Since the late 1980s, biotechnology researchers have promoted this goal of creating flocks of animals that can serve as “bioreactors” for drug companies. The cute Scottish ewe that graced the pages of our newspapers in late February represented a dramatic new advancement toward that goal.

Other near-term applications of cloning technology are also being developed. One is to clone animals whose parts are suitable for transplantation to humans. Any normal animal organs would of course be massively rejected by the human immune system. That is why at least four companies are trying to bestow pigs’ livers and other transplantable organs with human cell surface proteins—so they can fool the immune system to act as if they are biologically compatible. But without the ability to clone multiple copies of these animals, the resulting organs can never be made available on a commercial scale.

Other laboratories are seeking to clone animals whose milk is closer in chemical composition to human mothers’ milk. In recent years, a widespread revival of breastfeeding in the industrialized world has been spurred in part by findings that mothers’ milk contains numerous protein factors that are necessary for the proper development of the infant’s immune system, as well as other biological functions. If these immune factors can be made available in cow’s milk by adding human genes to the cow’s DNA, it is only a matter of time before drug companies begin advertising infant formula that is “better than the real thing.”

Finally, the biotechnology industry has been seeking to allay public concerns about genetically engineered drugs such as Bovine Growth Hormone (rBGH) by creating animals that secrete more BGH in their own mammary glands, and thus produce more milk without the farmer having to purchase and inject any drugs. Other hormonal changes may also be created by such means, including animals that give leaner meat, or express other highly marketable traits. Such animals would be patented, and any viable offspring that are born on the farm would require a royalty payment to the company holding the patent.

Like most applications of animal biotechnology, such experiments involve huge uncertainties, and a complete disregard for the integrity or welfare of the animals involved. Cows injected with rBGH are subject to higher rates of udder infections, reproductive problems and other diseases. Pigs engineered with human growth hormone genes to produce leaner meat have such deformed legs and hindquarters that they can hardly stand up. What kinds of lives will be led by animals that are genetically engineered under the auspices of a multinational drug company and cloned as organ factories or “bioreactors,” destined to live out their lives on a pharmaceutical assembly line? What new, unexpected consequences might result from the widespread commercial use of these new biotech “miracles”?

It is in this context that all the swirling controversies about the potential for human cloning need to be assessed. It will probably be many years before the dream—or nightmare—of genetically identical copies of living individuals can be realized, if at all. The success rate for cloning in Scottish sheep was one live birth out of 277 successful cell fusions. Who will be able to collect the 277, or perhaps 2770 human eggs necessary to produce a human clone? How many deformed and sterile human clones will scientists create before one is able to live a “normal” life? There are other more technical obstacles as well, but the single greatest constraint on human cloning may be that no one wants to be responsible for the “mistakes.” That is one reason why scientists such as Ian Wilmut are so willing to agree that human cloning should be banned, while supporting this technology’s use to develop “superior” animals. Still, given the deceptive technical simplicity of clonng experiments—nearly every college biology lab contains most of the necessary equipment—it is no longer possible to claim that such a thing will never be tried.

Like many scientific breakthroughs, progress toward cloning human beings will most likely emerge from far less controversial studies. Human cell lines, cultured in laboratory flasks, are commonly used and manipulated for studies of disease resistance and other medical mysteries. These cell lines are patented and maintained under strict commercial controls. The U.S. National Institutes of Health already tried to patent the entire genome of a person of the indigenous Hagahai nation of Papua New Guinea; the patent was relinquished only after it aroused worldwide controversy. Some scientists have already proposed that cloning technology be developed so that people can keep (or, more likely, buy) reserve cell lines of their own blood, neuronal, pancreatic and other tissues for possible future transplantation. Should we encourage the development of such medical “wonders,” or are they most likely to simply perpetuate the stark inequalities of our current system of medical care?

Controversies about the possibility or impossibility of human cloning can also obscure the abuses already being perpetrated in the name of “curing” infertility. Human reproductive technologies, even where “normal” eggs and sperm are the basic ingredients, offer the dubious promise of steadily increasing technological control over the processes of reproduction. Press accounts of the “miracle” of infertile or aged couples suddenly being able to have children rarely consider the relatively low success rate of such procedures, their phenomenally high cost, or the severe invasiveness of the steps through which women are tested, eggs extracted, and artificially fertilized eggs are implanted in the womb. The phenomenon of “surrogate motherhood,” which has aroused considerable controversy in legal circles, ultimately reflects the same life-denying mentality, the same view of living beings as objects to be manipulated and controlled, that reduces farm animals to living “bioreactors.”

In the 1930s, before the Nazis’ horrific eugenic experiments, and decades before the “genetic revolution” of the 1960s and seventies, Aldous Huxley wrote in Brave New World of a future society populated by human clones, arrested at various stages of development, and carefully conditioned by a technocratic elite to obediently perform their “predestined” social funcions. “The principle of mass production at last applied to biology,” one of Huxley’s characters called it. But biological mass production can take many forms, most of which arouse far less controversy than the prospect of mass cloning of human beings. Today’s genetic atrocities, from BGH to herbicide-resistant crops, to patenting tribes of people, are the product of a research agenda driven by corporations, and molded by a manipulative, profit-centered view of all of life.

We cannot reseal the Pandora’s Box of animal cloning, but we can press for an agenda of wider democratic control of research priorities—especially the considerable proportion of research that is still supported by public funds. We can continue to pressure the corporations that would profit from the latest developments in genetics. Scientific research and its applications are largely a reflection of the values of society as a whole, particularly its most privileged members. “If we are afraid of another Nazi empire trying to clone a master race,” writes biologist Ruth Hubbard, herself very skeptical of the scientific feasibility of such an undertaking, “we must destroy the political possibility that such an empire could arise.” To do so will depend far more on the activism of everyday citizens than the sensational breakthroughs of laboratory scientists.

Leave a Reply

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.