After Dolly What Next for Cloning?

Ten years ago, there was an extraordinary birth at the Roslin Institute near Edinburgh on 5th July. Dolly the sheep, was the first mammal to be cloned from adult cells. Ian Wilmut and Roger Highfield in their new book, After Dolly: the uses and misuses ofhuman cloning (Little Brown: London, 2006) explore some of the difficult questions their work and all that has followed throws up.

In particular, they address the question of cloning babies. Back in 1978 the first test-tube baby, Louise was born. This has led to a radical change for those couples unable to give birth naturally with greater possibilities for having their own children. It has also led to concerns about the morality of in vitro fertilisation. For instance, the Roman Catholic Church deems such procedures as immoral and its attitude to cloning technologies is similar. However, for the wider public IVF is accepted, but will this be the case for reproductive cloning?

Some say that infertile adults will want to use nuclear transfer, the process by which babies might be cloned, but Wilmut and Highfield think this unlikely. There are great risks attached to nuclear transfer and many alternatives from IVF to adoption. To be sure of success you would need 300 eggs, and twenty-nine willing women prepared to have an embryo. Most of these women would face the emotional trauma of a failed pregnancy. Wilmut and Highfield feel such suffering is far too much to justify but there is more to come. Four in ten cloned lambs died within weeks and there are all sorts of abnormalities that vary between species. Ultimately it seems that reproductive cloning is unreliable and unsafe, a bit like tossing five coins and getting five heads or tails.

Much more important is the research evidence that can come from the early stages of cloning as this will help in developing therapeutic cloning. Wilmut and Highfield are more positive about the benefits offered by therapeutic cloning, which can offer the chance to heal people of existing medical problems. The ability to grow replacement cells and organs and modify genetic structures offers more promise though even gene therapy has risks. Some of the human trails of experimental treatments have not gone well.

Wilmut and Highfield make a last point in the book which Wilmut has reinforced in interviews. He believes that the public must take responsibility for making decisions about which technologies are developed and which are not. It is not for scientists to make the moral decisions. We have to take responsibility for understanding the science so we can fully appreciate the moral issues at stake.

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