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Panel Discusses Ethical Issues Of Cloning at Crowded Forum

By Jean K. Lee
associate news editor

A crowd of students, faculty, and other interested people gathered in 34-101 on Tuesday night for a panel discussion on the ethical and scientific implications of cloning. Professor of Biology Jonathan A. King moderated the semester's last cultural forum, sponsored by the Technology and Culture Forum and the Lecture Series Committee.

Panelists included George Annas, chair of the Health Law Department at the Boston University School of Public Health; Karl Ebert, who is on the faculty of the Tufts University School of Veterinary Medicine and founded Midas Biologicals; and Ruth Hubbard, a professor emeritus of biology at Harvard University who also serves on the Council for Responsible Genetics.

King started the discussion and said that there is an increasingly wary social consciousness about the consequences of cloning, genetic engineering, organ modification, and controlling various developmental processes.

Ebert spoke first and discussed the mechanisms involved in cloning and producing transgenic animals, those whose genome had been altered. In general, the press has confused the public about the cloning process and is "taking cloning out of the realm of science," he said.

While cloning usually involves the production of identical individuals by splitting a multicellular embryo, specific foreign genes are often integrated to add new elements to the existing genome in transgenic animals, Ebert said. "This isn't totally cloning, it's like mixing apples and oranges together."

Later in the forum, Annas presented several slides that depicted visions of "human cloning horror" to explain the public reaction to the Dolly, a sheep recently cloned by researchers in Scotland. Cartoons full of puns and cultural icons, such as of a sheep learning to clone vegetarians, added humor to the discussion.

Annas said that naming the sheep "Dolly" was an attempt to reduce negative images of cloning and spur humor, as it was named after celebrity Dolly Parton.

Human cloning not desirable

The "real issue" brought up by Dolly is whether the procedure should be applied to humans or not, Annas said. While about 66 percent of the respondents to a recent survey were against cloning animals, 91 percent disapproved cloning humans.

"There shouldn't be any reasons for cloning humans," Annas said. "Just the idea of cloning children has led many in society to devalue children."

"Cloning is an evolutionary dead end, [because] most parents want their children to be better than them," Annas said. Using cloning techniques to make perfect human beings would ultimately devalue human life, he said.

The human cloning discussion led to the issue of regulation. "[It] is all we've got," Ebert said.

"We're playing on dangerous grounds here. We certainly do not want to touch this [cloning] with humans," Hubbard said.

"It is up to the society to decide what should or shouldn't be done," Hubbard said. This raised various questions like how regulation should be administered and to what extent research on cloning should be permitted.

Cloning presents a problem "because most of us have a strong interest in the notion of individuality. The notion of producing copies is offensive to many," Hubbard said. People need to assess carefully the extent of cloning of domestic animals, as they are already are degraded for other uses, she said. "It is troubling to go further."

"It's important not to give that [decision-making] power to scientists. It is up to the society," Hubbard said. It was also pointed out that it would be better to use scientists as advisers, rather than as decision makers.

The cloning debate can be used in a positive way to "set up a worldwide structure and universal declaration" against cloning of humans, Annas said.

Expert clarify misconceptions

Hubbard also spoke about various details of cloning and responded to the some of the public debate on the issue. She began by explaining the different meanings that the word "cloning" may assume.

A genetically equivalent organism can be generated by splitting an embryo and implanting it into another animal, or by transferring a nucleus from a cell into an egg cell for activation and division, Hubbard said.

The splash that has caused the recent excitement among scientists is the finding that implantation is not limited to embryo cells, although for biological reasons they are still by far the easiest to use; a nucleus from a differentiated cell - in Dolly's case, from an udder - could be used.

Hubbard highlighted the important distinction between cloning, which involves transplanting genetic material, and creating a new identical animal. "Cloning" in the science-fiction sense of the word - the production of an exact, 100-percent identical carbon copy - is not possible, she said.

Although identical genetic material can be implanted into eggs from the same individual, there is more to a cell than just its DNA: Each egg has a different mitrochondrial and cytoplasmic makeup, Hubbard said. In addition, and perhaps more importantly, the environment the embryo grows up in is bound to be different from that in which the parent animal faced.

"There is a notion that [only] the DNA in the nucleus determines who we are," Hubbard said. "It's not really true." She emphasized the need to look into the effects of interactions between the nucleus and cytoplasm, as well as other environmental factors that would essentially lead to a different individual.