Designer Babies and 21st Century Cures

April 1, 2010 — Leave a comment

Designer Babies and 21st Century Cures After Dolly: The Uses and Misuses of Human Cloning by Ian Wilmut and Roger Highfield. W.W. Norton & Company. 256 pages. $24.95.

In 1997, a research team led by geneticist Ian Wilmut in Scotland succeeded in cloning a white-faced sheep named Dolly, and plunging the world into a new era of fear, possibility, and speculation. His new book, After Dolly: The Uses and Misuses of Human Cloning, explains the fascinating but complicated cloning process. It also examines key misconceptions that have arisen in the shadow of Dolly, such as the likelihood of creating genetically enhanced “designer babies.” Wilmut puts forward a passionate argument for applying cloning techniques to stom-coll science in ordor to find cures for the world’s most devastating genetic diseases and disorders, such as Parkinson’s and Hodgkin’s diseases.

On a conceptual level, the process of cloning is really not very complicated. DNA is harvested from an adult cell (a mammary cell in the case of Dolly). The DNA is then inserted into the center of a hollowed-out egg from a different animal of the same species. With its nucleus removed, the host egg would not contain genetic material from the animal that provided it (but would contain cytoplasm). Once the donor DNA has been inserted, a carefully released burst of electricity convinces the enucleated egg that it has been fertilized, or “activated.” The egg is then inserted into the uterine lining of a third animal (the birthing mother). If the resulting offspring is a genetic match with the original DNA donor but not the donor of the hosting egg or the birthing mother, then the cloning attempt has been successful.

Needless to say, in practice cloning is far more difficult. Wilmut and his team extracted material from 277 donor cells and implanted 29 embryos into surrogate mothers, but only one embryo developed into a fetus and finally into a live sheep.

Since his success with Dolly, Wilmut has turned his attention to the debate on stem-cell therapy, or what is sometimes called therapeutic cloning. Ironically, the man who many consider to be one of the giants in the field of cloning research has mixed views about the term itself.

“The usual term for the procedure of deriving cells from cloned embryos, ‘therapeutic cloning,’ sends shivers down the spines of many people,” Wilmut writes. “Many experts have wondered whether the use of the term ‘cloning’ has damaged the field because it is so laden with grim associations and negative baggage. Understandably, the official alternative-‘cell nuclear replacement’-is gray and wordy and, as a result, has not caught on.”

Recent polling research validates this opinion. While 58% of Americans now favor embryonic stem-cell research, 59% are opposed to using cloning technology to create embryos in order to provide stem cells for therapy, despite the marginal difference between these two processes. “What’s in a name?” Wilmut asks. “In this case, a great deal. These primal cells are the stuff of which medical dreams are made.”

Unlike either animal cloning or reproductive human cloning (which Wilmut adamantly opposes), therapeutic cloning involves creating an embryo that is a genetic match with the human seeking therapy, and then harvesting and manipulating stem cells from that embryo. This process, Wilmut writes, offers a way to dependably obtain genetically compatible tissue of any kind. Stem cells are harvested from an activated egg that has reached the blastocyst stage, roughly 200 cells. At this stage, the embryo is little more than a ball of undifferentiated genetic material. By way of comparison, a fully formed human, capable of thought and reason, comprises nearly 10 trillion cells.

Wilmut defends his work with blastocysts on the basis that such genetic material, once created in a dish, cannot survive on its own, bares no resemblance to an adult of any species, and is totally incapable of thought or discomfort.

“Is the blastocyst aware?” he asks. “Can a blastocyst feel pain? Until nerve connections form between two crucial areas of the developing brain, the cortex and the thalamus, sensations of pain cannot be experienced. This formation takes place much later in pregnancy, around the twenty-sixth week (in humans). There is no pain, no suffering, and thus no cruelty to the blastocyst is possible.”

Wilmut doubts the feasibility of “designing babies” and opposes such efforts on ethical grounds. While defending the use of embryonic science and cloning technology to treat or prevent serious diseases, he argues that the compulsion to use the same science to enhance physical or mental attributes in the unborn is not morally justifiable.

“Like most people I disapprove strongly of the idea of an embryo coaxed to life for shallow reasons of status, preference, or style. Any such work is unsavory because it reduces children to consumer objects that can be ‘accessorized’ according to the parents’ whims. As many ethicists have argued, love for offspring should not be contingent upon the characteristics they possess, in an ideal world,” Wilmut writes. He believes that much of the language used by the media to describe this possibility reflects an overly optimistic view of the science and its potential:

I am skeptical that genetic enhancement is even possible because the genetic control of many traits is so complex. In turn any of the genes involved in any one trait also have effects in many others. In short, we could not predict the effect of changing genes except in the case of inherited diseases associated with errors in a known gene. . . . Any genetic change intended to influence intelligence, say, could also change other aspects of personality in an unpredictable way.

By way of example, Wilmut brings up the story of a pair of rich parents who hoped to engineer an intellectually gifted baby only to wind up, years later, with “a sullen adolescent who smokes marijuana and doesn’t talk to them.”

Regardless of its feasibility, Wilmut is deeply anxious about the prospect of someone using private funding to engineer “a designer baby,” and he recommends strong government regulation to prevent such unethical experimentation. “Despite many people’s almost religious belief in free markets, our experience of the food and pharmaceutical industries shows us that an unregulated market is inappropriate for matters of public health and thus of genetic modification,” he writes.

The debate over what might constitute legitimate genetic “therapy” vs. what might be “enhancement” will surely grow more cacophonous in the years ahead. As the science becomes more conclusive and breakthroughs continue to garner media attention, more people will invest both faith and money in cures that are still years away and experiments that may have unfortunate consequences.

Yet, as Wilmut himself makes clear, there is also great cause for optimism. In the following decades, we may succeed in eliminating some of the world’s most devastating diseases, much to the relief of humanity as a whole. To help us negotiate the winding path before us, Wilmut puts his trust in that oldest and perhaps most mysterious of human qualities-reason.

“Although I have no idea what the future will bring,” he writes, “I am confident that reproductive and genetic technologies will greatly expand our possibilities. By the same token, they will also expand the burden of responsibility. Because of my faith in the majority of people to know right from wrong, I feel the sooner we take on that burden the better.” For the sake of future generations and their health, I hope Wilmut’s faith is well placed.

Originally published in THE FUTURIST, September-October 2006.

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