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Should we be cloning around?

Breakthrough raises exciting
-- and scary -- possibilities

February 24, 1997
Web posted at: 3:45 p.m. EST

(CNN) -- The announcement that a team of British scientists had successfully cloned an adult sheep has touched off a new wave of discussion over the ethical implications of such a feat.

The achievement announced Sunday by a team of scientists at the Roslin Institute near Edinburgh, Scotland, marks the first time anyone has successfully cloned an adult mammal.

"There are a number of genetic diseases for which there is no cure ... and this will enable us to carry out research into the causes of those diseases and perhaps develop method to treat them," Dr. Ian Wilmut of the Roslin Institute said following the announcement.

While some scientists hail the cloning as a major breakthrough for research in agriculture, aging, medicine and genetics, others worry what it may portend. If sheep can be replicated, they ask, are humans far behind?

Suddenly the stuff of science fiction doesn't seem so fanciful anymore as one considers the possibility of dictators cloning themselves, dead geniuses brought back to life, or beloved family pets resurrected.

Sheep, cattle, pigs ... what next?

At the center of the controversy is a cuddly 7-month-old lamb named Dolly, an exact copy of a 6-year-old ewe born through a process called "nuclear transplantation." Specifically, the Roslin scientists put genes from the ewe into unfertilized eggs then implanted them in other sheep.

Grahame Bulfield, director of the Roslin Institute, told CNN Monday his team has previously cloned mammals at various stages of development. What makes Dolly different, he said, is that she was cloned not from sex cells, but from mature mammal cells with no reproductive function. icon (272K/24 sec. AIFF or WAV sound)

"I expect in the fullness of time, we will be trying to do the same experiments on cattle and pigs," he said.

What about humans? Maybe such experiments are under way in other parts of the world, but not in Scotland. Due to ethical concerns, Britain has banned human cloning, and research using human embryos is strictly regulated.

CNN's Siobhan Darrow on the ethical implications of cloning
icon (196K/17 sec. AIFF or WAV sound)

Such experiments are not banned in the United States, although some American ethicists are calling for federal laws prohibiting the practice and an immediate international moratorium on human cloning.

"One of the prospects should not be, perhaps should never be, the extension of this technique to human beings," said Carl Felbaum, president of the Biotechnology Industry Organization, in an interview with CNN. "Now that it may be possible we would say its should be prohibited if necessary by law."

"We're going to be facing this issue with humans," said Stephen Grebe, an associate professor of biology at American University in Washington. "With that possibility open, I'm concerned without adequate safeguards this will become a reality. It may very well already be."

Don't go there, ethicists warn

But even if humans could be cloned, they would not necessarily be identical, according to Grebe who noted that human twins may appear to be exactly alike, but have distinct personalities. icon (281K/25 sec. AIFF or WAV sound)

While the prospects of cloning may open exciting possibilities like the replication of an Albert Einstein or a Mother Teresa, it brings with it some terrifying prospects.

"Do we want necessarily Einsteins and are we willing to accept the costs of so-called bad copies?" Grebe asked. "What about failed experiments? These are really horrific issues and I think there's a moral chasm between the technological ability at this point and the public understanding of the purpose of this."

Felbaum is uncomfortable with such speculation. With regard to cloning Einsteins, he said, "I would assert this is not a line we want to cross. I would say this is not even a line we want to approach." icon (247K/22 sec. AIFF or WAV sound)

Correspondent Siobhan Darrow contributed to this report.


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