wwwCloning the Perfect Child?
The movie is called Multiplicity and it stars Andie McDowell playing opposite Michael Keaton, and Michael Keaton, and Michael Keaton -- it wouldn't be the first time Hollywood has taken an idea from current research and stretched it to its silliest extreme to make an impossible sounding movie. Impossible ? Well, not really.Advances both stunning and disturbing in the genetic science of cloning are closer than just around the corner -- they are almost here. A scientist at the Roslin Institute in Edinburgh, Scotland has already successfully cloned sheep. A Ewe gave birth to a healthy lamb -- more than once. Each time the Ewe was impregnated with genetic material from the same source -- which means that the lamb it produced was not a twin, a brother or a sister -- but the same lamb. They were named Megan and Morag to tell them apart!Ever have a sibling who was Mom and Dad's favorite? In the future there will be no second best kids. If parents intent on raising a two kid family really like their first, then they will just have him or her again. I know your Mom and Dad really liked you -- but where does this leave the rest of us?It is just this kind of really tricky ethics issue that makes geneticists a little queasy when the issue of human cloning is raised. Hollywood hype aside, the issue may be much closer to us than we think.Genetics is one of the most complex and challenging fields of biomedical research in the world today. It is also potentially one of the most rewarding, which is why some awfully big money is being invested in the stock of leading genetics companies in Europe, America and Japan.It is not exactly a modern science. An Austrian cleric, Gregor Mendel, spent much of his time prior to 1865 studying pea plants. This led to the conclusion that something deep within the plants governed their structure -- and their color, which ranged from white to pink to blue. He presented a paper on the topic at a scientific conference in Czechoslovakia in March of 1865. The respectable scientists listened to Mendel, yawned, and promptly forgot him and his research.Mendel died in 1884, probably not from the reception his paper had received in the world of science. At the turn of the century, Mendel's paper was dusted off by someone rare in many areas of scientific inquiry -- someone with vision. There was an explosion of research interest in Mendel's' conclusions, and genetics became a formal scientific discipline.Scientists realized that here was a chance to do what they like to do most --- mess with the fundamental foundations of our existence. In this case, genetics offered them an insight into what might be called the very 'software' that determines the form, the function, the characteristics and even the health and thereby, the longevity, of all life forms.For most of this century, research on genetics was aimed at understanding the underlying mechanisms of that 'software' program -- what was it within the infinitely small strings of matter called genes that could dictate that a pea would have blue flowers instead of pink, that one cow would produce more milk than another, that one baby's heart would beat for 85 years -- while another's would fade within 50.This was the promise of genetics. By the 1970s, enough had been learned that some of the first commercial companies were emerging from the research field. By the 1980s stocks were soaring on the promise of 'genetically engineered' cells that would produce powerfully pure new medicines, or cells that could 'eat' oil -- providing a 'natural' way of cleaning ocean oil spills. The early 1990s brought genetic research to the point where plants and small animals could be cloned with relative ease. The news from the Roslin Institute is stunning both for the size of the mammal reproduced -- and the method -- no male fertilization was involved. Also, the degree of control over the specific genes introduced into the cloned lamb was far more precise than ever before. The female cell was placed next to an artificial 'package' of gene material -- then fused to it with a spark of electricity. Many have since found an echo of Frankenstein in this procedure -- hysteria and science fiction of the past aside -- it is clear that the ability to custom create a human embryo with specific characteristics, from blue eyes to immunity from parental defects, is now within sight.Important research in the direction of control of inherited disease is being made in Augusta, Georgia. It is being done using specially cloned mice and fish. The work is being done by researchers at The Medical College of Georgia's Institute of Molecular Medicine."Molecular medicine covers genetics and molecular biology," said Director of the Institute Dr. Howard Rasmussen. "It will soon change our present understanding of disease and illness. The implications for the future are staggering and represent a tremendous opportunity for shaping the future of medicine."At the Institute Dr. Andrew L. Mellor uses genetically altered mice to study the human immune system."When things go wrong, the immune system can sometimes fail to respond to foreign agents, like viruses -- or it can respond too well and attack our own tissues."Cloned zebra fish are the specialty of the Institute's Dr. Shuo Lin, whose background includes research contributions to the work of Nobel Prize winner Dr. Christianne Nusselein-Volhard. Zebra fish develop from embryos to fish at incredible speed, remaining transparent thoughout most of the process. By inducing genetically altered traits into embryos, Dr. Lin can create an ideal 'observation platform' for the effects of the various traits.One day, perhaps in the not too far distant future, MCG may announce the ability to "genetically treat" your next baby to ensure that he will not have diabetes, certain cancers, even alcoholism and depression.Yet, even as the world marvels at such accomplishments, researchers at The Roslin Institute feel compelled to address the issues that such work raises for the human race.Not only could humans be cloned -- but even the problem of finding the 'ideal' father with 'good genes' has been avoided.Dr. Keith Campbell has told the press:"I don't think the human male is redundant. I think the human male is unnecessary."Is there any reason, let alone intention, to apply such technology to humans?"I hope that no scientist would even consider doing such things," said Dr. Bill Colledge of Cambridge University, to England's Daily Telegraph. "It is totally unethical." Lord Winston, professor of fertility studies at Hammersmith Hospital, London, and Britain's leading expert on test-tube babies, said: "The current (British) 1990 legislation would forbid this being used in the human. There are no plans anywhere in the world to consider this, so far as I know."Prof. Davor Solter of the Max Planck Institute for Immunobiology in Freiburg, Germany, said producing humans without men is "conceivably possible, technically," but added that some sperm would be required to create the original laboratory-grown cells.So who will be the first volunteer?There are people in the world for whom principles, ethics and decency hold no value. They range from sub-human terrorist cowards to men and women with great power, great wealth, or both.Realism dictates that sooner or later there will appear an Olympic athlete artificially and secretly created with physical characteristics that will ensure his government a gold medal. On some future battlefield, Americans kids may face troops oblivious to pain and fear. On some future American Main Street, there may walk children whose parents have ensured they will be perfect -- and perfectly predictable.The human race has existed but for the blink of an eye in terms of geological time. It has survived this long only because of the guarantees of random selection. Our very faults inspire us to be both sinners and saints -- it is not a great system -- but I for one prefer it to bland perfection.