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Double Trouble

August 7, 2001 at 12:00 AM EDT
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MARGARET WARNER: Just a week ago, after a spirited debate, Congress voted to ban all human cloning. The focus then was on cloning for therapy and research purposes. Today, scientists gathered in Washington for their own debate; their focus was on the even more controversial notion of human cloning to produce babies. Our health correspondent, Susan Dentzer, was there too. She joins me now to tell us about it. So, Susan, this conference was assembled by the National Academy of Sciences. Why?

SUSAN DENTZER: The National Academy, Margaret, is the independent agency which is chartered by Congress to look at some of the preeminent scientific questions of our time and tell us what the answers are, what we think the answers might be. So the National Academy assembled a group of very prominent scientists who are experts in biology, human cell biology, ethics and so on to ask them some questions about the cloning controversy.

This comes in the midst, of course, of not only the House of Representatives debate last week to ban human cloning but a lot of questions about cloning that have surfaced in the wake of the stem cell debate. There are some techniques of stem cell replication, which impinge on cloning as well, and in addition to that there is also the concern that arose earlier this year when these two separate groups vowed that they would create cloned human babies as a means of assisting infertile couples to have children.

That created a great controversy. Now the Academy is rushing out a report on the scientific issues involved in cloning to help Congress and guide the Senate when it comes back in the fall and presumably takes up this question as well.

MARGARET WARNER: Now, when we talk about human cloning what are we really talking about?

SUSAN DENTZER: What we’re talking about is taking a human egg from a woman, stripping out the nuclear material in the cell nucleus of that egg and then taking a cell from an adult being, a skin cell; in the case of the sheep Dolly it was the udder cell of the adult sheep – and then taking that which has the DNA material in it, the famous 23 pairs of chromosomes and inserting that back into the egg where in effect it becomes the new nucleus of that egg.

As a consequence, the egg is more or less transformed into a human embryo. It now has all the genetic material necessary to become a human being and has in effect male and female human material joined. And that embryo is, in effect, the genetic twin of the adult animal that was cloned.

There are two reasons to do this: One is called therapeutic cloning. That’s where in effect you create this embryo mainly in order to get stem cells, which are those embryonic building block cells, which will ultimately differentiate into all the different tissues of our body. That’s therapeutic cloning. There’s also –

MARGARET WARNER: So that, for instance, to treat me you might do that so that then I wouldn’t reject the stem cells that came from this process.

SUSAN DENTZER: Exactly right. You would want the stem cell to treat people for Parkinson’s, Alzheimer’s, et cetera. The second issue is reproductive cloning. That’s where you go through that entire process I just described but the objective is in essence to create a human embryo that would be transplanted back into the uterus of a woman. And ultimately it would be hoped by those trying to do it that it would develop into a human baby.

MARGARET WARNER: All right. Now, as you said, the big focus at this conference was this announcement earlier in the year that these two groups were going ahead to do this, to produce cloned human babies; that they were going to be at the conference. What did they say?

SUSAN DENTZER: They, in fact, were there. The fact that they were there created a very strange atmosphere at the National Academy, which is normally a very dignified building with scientific presentations. Today it took on more the National Academy meets Barnum & Bailey and the Twilight Zone as the others came and stepped forward.

One of them, for example, Brigitte Boisselier — who is a scientist with a group called Clone-Aid, followers of a man named Rael, who is a French race car driver who believes that he was visited by aliens in France, so you get a sense of who these people are who presented today.

In any case what they said today, her group, Clone-Aid as well as a separate group, an international consortium that was present said they were moving ahead with plans to create cloned human embryos and basically assist infertile couples in having children that were clones in one case by the end of this year and in another case, Brigitte Boisselier — of Clone-Aid said that the process was more or less underway. We have a short clip about that.

MARGARET WARNER: All right. Let’s look at that.

BRIGITTE BOISSELIER: What I’m saying is that we have reproducible data today that could be publishable and we hope that’s what we’ll be able to publish.

OTHER RESEARCHER: And you’re checking expression on single cells from a blastocyst?

BRIGITTE BOISSELIER: From single cells, yes.

OTHER RESEARCHER: And is this after somatic cell nuclear transfer? I’m a bit confused.

OTHER RESEARCHER: That’s what I assume.

BRIGITTE BOISSELIER: Yes, of course,.

OTHER RESEARCHER: That’s what I assume. Sorry, Brigitte.

OTHER RESEARCHER: So you have done somatic cell nuclear transfer into an empty egg. You’ve developed them to four cell, eight cell? You’ve taken a single cell and you’ve looked at imprinted boxes of 10-Gs.

BRIGITTE BOISSELIER: This is correct.

MARGARET WARNER: Translate for us.

SUSAN DENTZER: In that highly technical exchange what Brigitte Boisselier was saying is yes we’ve done somatic cell nuclear transfer. That’s what cloning is. We’ve taken this cell. We’ve taken the egg, we’ve taken out the nucleus; we’ve put in this material. She was actually being asked there, have you done anything to screen for any of the genetic defects that could occur as a consequence of this process? And she was explaining that, yes, they’ve started to do that. And that was when the exchange arose which resulted in her saying in effect we’ve started on this process of at least the first steps of creating a cloned being.

MARGARET WARNER: All right. Now, let’s go to the criticism because they were hot and heavy. What were the critics saying?

SUSAN DENTZER: Very much so. For one thing the critics point out in prior efforts to clone mammals– and now we’ve had cloned mice, we’ve had cloned sheep, goats, et cetera– many things appear to go wrong in the very early stages of genetic development both in terms of eggs and sperm maturing and then in addition to that, the process of those coming together and an embryo being formed.

So many things go wrong that they result, first of all, in many embryos not developing fully in these cloned animals. Many of them have terrible genetic defects. When they are born, for example, many of them have respiratory failure. Some of them die within days — minutes after birth if not days after birth. So the scientists who were pressing these cloning people today, in essence were saying all of these things go wrong and you have no way of screening for them.

You have no way of basically counseling a couple that they’re not going to experience these terrible genetic defects with their children. If these children were ever to be born, we have no way of keeping them alive.

MARGARET WARNER: All right. And we have a clip showing that. Let’s take a look.

IAN WILMUT, Roslin Institute: The application of the present techniques to humans would almost certainly end up with a similar range of outcomes to that which is seen in other species. But because of the complexity of the errors that occur, screening is ineffective. It is not possible to think of a way of screening out defective… the most appropriate embryos. Hence, what we should expect would be late abortions either occurring spontaneously or being induced deliberately in the second perhaps, even the third trimester of pregnancy in order to prevent the birth of abnormal children. There would be a choice here for the clinician to make – and perhaps worst of all surviving but abnormal children….

MARGARET WARNER: All right. Now that was Dr. Willmut, the man who created Dolly, correct?

SUSAN DENTZER: That’s right.

MARGARET WARNER: Is that where mainstreamed scientists against these researchers who say they are going ahead to clone babies?

SUSAN DENTZER: Very much so. As one of the scientists said today, most of us are here today because we abhor the notion of human reproductive cloning. We want to see it stopped in its tracks.

MARGARET WARNER: So where does the debate go from here?

SUSAN DENTZER: It goes now – we await the National Academy’s report, which, as they say, they are rushing out. They hope to get it out in time for a Senate debate. It’s quite likely the Senate will take this up, possibly vote to ban the reproductive cloning, not clear what they will do with the therapeutic cloning, which is related to stem cells. And we’ll see if these researchers in fact move forward with their purported plans to proceed with cloning human babies.

MARGARET WARNER: And they’re planning to do it out of this country, is that right?

SUSAN DENTZER: It appears that’s the case. The one group – the International Consortium — has said that they’ll do it in some unnamed Mediterranean country. The other group is based — Clone-aid is based in the Bahamas. It’s been asserted they have a lab in West Virginia. But they’ve also agreed with the FDA that they will not conduct cloning experiments, which the FDA says would be illegal.

MARGARET WARNER: All right. Well, thanks, Susan, very much.