Hello, Dolly!

With Cloning of a Sheep, Ethical Ground Shifts

By Gina Kolata
February 24, 1997

When a scientist whose goal is to turn animals into drug factories announced on Saturday in Britain that his team had cloned a sheep, the last practical barrier in reproductive technology was breached, experts say, and with a speed that few if any scientists anticipated.

Now these experts say the public must come to grips with issues as grand as the possibility of making carbon copies of humans and as mundane, but important, as what will happen to the genetic diversity of livestock if breeders start to clone animals.

For starters, quipped Dr. Ursula Goodenough, a cell biologist at Washington University in St. Louis, with cloning, "there'd be no need for men."

But on a more serious note, Dr. Stanley Hauerwas, a divinity professor at Duke University, said that those who wanted to clone "are going to sell it with wonderful benefits" for medicine and animal husbandry. But he said he saw "a kind of drive behind this for us to be our own creators."

Dr. Kevin FitzGerald, a Jesuit priest and a geneticist at Loyola University in Maywood, Ill., cautioned that people might not understand clones. While a clone would be an identical, but much younger, twin of the adult, people are more than just the sum of their genes. A clone of a human being, he said, would have a different environment than the person whose DNA it carried and so would have to be a different person. It would even have to have a different soul, he added.

The cloning was done by Dr. Ian Wilmut, a 52-year-old embryologist at the Roslin Institute in Edinburgh. Wilmut announced on Saturday that he had replaced the genetic material of a sheep's egg with the DNA from an adult sheep and created a lamb that is a clone of the adult. He is publishing his results in the British journal Nature on Thursday.

While other researchers had previously produced genetically identical animals by dividing embryos soon after they had been formed by eggs and sperm, Wilmut is believed to be the first to create a clone using DNA from an adult animal. Until now, scientists believed that once adult cells had differentiated -- to become skin or eye cells, for example -- their DNA would no longer be usable to form a complete organism.

Wilmut reported that as a source of genetic material, he had used udder, or mammary, cells from a 6-year-old adult sheep. The cells were put into tissue culture and manipulated to make their DNA become quiescent. Then Wilmut removed the nucleus, containing the genes, from an egg cell taken from another ewe. He fused that egg cell with one of the adult udder cells.

When the two cells merged, the genetic material from the adult took up residence in the egg and directed it to grow and divide. Wilmut implanted the developing embryo in a third sheep, who gave birth to a lamb that is a clone of the adult that provided its DNA. The lamb, named Dolly, was born in July and seems normal and healthy, Wilmut said.

In an interview, Wilmut said he wanted to create new animals that could be used for medical research, and he dismissed the notion of cloning humans. "There is no reason in principle why you couldn't do it," he said. But he added, "All of us would find that offensive."

Yet others said that might be too glib. "It is so typical for scientists to say they are not thinking about the implications of their work," said Dr. Lee Silver, a biology professor at Princeton University. Perhaps, he added, "the only way they can validate what they are doing is to say they are just doing it in sheep."

Few experts think that sheep or other farm animals would be the only animals to be cloned. While cloning people is illegal in Britain and several other countries, John Robertson, a law professor at the University of Texas at Austin who studies reproductive rights and bioethics, said there were no laws against it in the United States.

If such a law was passed, Silver said, doctors could set up clinics elsewhere to offer cloning. "There's no way to stop it," Silver said. "Borders don't matter."

Dr. Ronald Munson, an ethicist at the University of Missouri at St. Louis, said the cloning itself was relatively simple. "This technology is not, in principle, policeable," he said. "It doesn't require the sort of vast machines that you need for atom-smashing. These are relatively standard labs. That's the amazing thing about all this biotechnology. It's fundamentally quite simple."

One immediate implication of cloning, Silver said, would be for genetic engineering: custom-tailoring genes. Currently, scientists are unable to take a gene and simply add it to cells. The process of adding genes is so inefficient that researchers typically have to add genes to a million cells to find one that takes them up and uses them properly. That makes it very difficult to add genes to an embryo -- or a person -- to correct a genetic disease or genetically enhance a person, Silver said. But now, "it all becomes feasible," he said.

After adding genes to cells in the laboratory, scientists could fish out the one cell in a million with the right changes and use it to clone an animal -- or a person. "All of a sudden, genetic engineering is much, much easier," Silver said.

Wilmut is hoping that the genes for pharmacologically useful proteins could be added to sheep mammary cells and that the best cells could be used for cloning. The adult cloned sheep would produce the proteins in their milk, where they could be easily harvested.

Because cloning had been considered so far-fetched, scientists had discouraged ethicists from dwelling on its implications, said Dr. Daniel Callahan, a founder of the Hastings Center, one of the first ethics centers.

In the early 1970s, "there was an enormous amount of discussion about cloning," Callahan said, and ethicists mulled over the frightening implications. But scientists dismissed these discussions as idle speculation about impossible things, Callahan recalled, and urged ethicists not to dwell on the topic.

"A lot of scientists got upset," Callahan said. "They said that this is exactly the sort of thing that brings science into bad repute and you people should stop talking about it."

In the meantime, however, cloning had captured the popular imagination. In his 1970 book, "Future Shock," Alvin Toffler speculated that "cloning would make it possible for people to see themselves anew, to fill the world with twins of themselves."

Woody Allen's 1973 movie "Sleeper" involved a futuristic world whose leader had left behind his nose for cloning purposes. Allen played a character charged with cloning to bring the leader back. A later movie, "The Boys From Brazil," released in 1978, involved a Nazi scheme to clone multiple Hitlers. That same year, a science writer, David Rorvik, published a book, "In His Image: The Cloning of a Man," that purported to be the true story of a wealthy man who had secretly had himself cloned but was found to be a hoax.

But gradually, the notion disappeared from sight, kept alive only in the animal husbandry industry, where companies saw a huge market for cloned animals and where the troubling ethical implications of cloning could be swept aside.

Now these questions are back to haunt ethicists and theologians.

Clones of animals, FitzGerald said, might sound appealing -- scientists could clone the buttery Kobe beef cattle or the meatiest pigs, for example. But these cloned creatures would also share an identical susceptibly to disease, he cautioned. An entire cloned herd could be wiped out overnight if the right virus swept through it.

FitzGerald wondered if people would actually try to clone themselves. "Because we have all this technology and we have this ability," he said, "we can spin off these fantasies. But that doesn't mean we'd do it. It would be going against everything we desire for the human race."

Others are less sure. Robertson can envision times when cloning might be understandable. Take the case of a couple whose baby was dying and who wanted, literally, to replace the child. Robertson does not think that would be so reprehensible.

Cloning might also be attractive to infertile couples who want children and who "want to be sure that whatever offspring they have has good genes," Robertson said.

Of course, there are legal issues, Robertson said, like the issue of consent. "Would the person being cloned have an intellectual property right or basic human right to control their DNA?" he asked. If the person did, and consented to the cloning, would cloning be procreation, as it is now understood?

Robertson thinks not. After all, he said, "replication is not procreation."

From The New York Times; February 24, 1997.   Copyright 1997 The New York Times Company

Goodbye, Dolly

Dolly passed away on February 14, 2003.

The Roslin Institute in Edinburgh, Scotland, where Dolly was created and lived her life, announced that Dolly had been put to death to spare her further suffering. A virus that causes incurable lung cancer in sheep has been spreading at the institute, killing both cloned and normal animals. A lung scan had revealed that she was seriously afflicted and, without intervention, would die a slow, uncomfortable death.

"Frankly, the vets were surprised how much the disease had progressed, because she had been living a normal life," said Ian Wilmut, the scientist primarily responsible for creating Dolly. "It was quite clear things were going to get worse, and this was the kindest thing to do."


WOW Tour WOW Stories WOW Poetry
Letters to WOW Press Room Business Zone
Site Index WOW Forums Photo Album