November 28, 2001
Next Stop, The Dark Ages
Some scientists announced over the weekend that they had successfully implanted the DNA from an adult human's tissue into a woman's egg cell. In other words, a clone like Dolly the sheep. They ulimately failed -- all the cells died before anything useful could be done -- but that hasn't stopped the most technophobic members of the Congress from doing their Chicken Little routine.
The Republicans (who I voted for in 2000 simply because they weren't Democrats) have decried the latest experiment as "creating life to destroy life" and as the work of "mad scientists." Ugh.
These "clones" are alive in the same sense as the fertilized eggs in a fertility clinic. Nobody complains when would-be parents decide they no longer want their embryos, and those cells don't even get used to prolong existing human lives. That's what these cells are for. Scientists want stem cells -- cells that exist in a body before differentiating into heart cells, bone cells, etc. -- that can be used to find new treatments for genetic diseases like cancer and (maybe) Alzheimer's. In theory, the cells could be "convinced" to grow into a new organ to replace the original human's failing body systems.
And this is what the Republicans want to stop. God forbid we offer someone a heart transplant years from now that doesn't require someone else's death and carries no risk of rejection.
Now, there is the possibility that these stem cells could be made to grow into a fully-formed human being, and that human would be a clone of the original DNA donor. (OK, not a perfect clone -- the DNA in the cells' mitochondria would be different, but that doesn't really affect anything.) There are significant problems with that though -- Dolly the sheep, for example, like any other cloned animal aged quickly because some of the aging process is tied to the age of the DNA -- and those problems don't look like they're going to be overcome any time soon. Until that day comes, I don't think cloning will be anything more than what the scietists say they want it to be: A means of saving existing lives, not creating new ones.