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Wilmut Shares Insights Regarding 'Dolly' and Cloning

By Orli G. Bahcall
Staff Reporter

Ian Wilmut, famed for cloning the sheep "Dolly", gave a lecture entitled "The Role of Nuclear Transfer in Biology" on Tuesday in 10-250.

Wilmut and colleagues announced the successful cloning of a sheep from an adult cell earlier this year on Feb. 23.

Wilmut discussed the scientific breakthroughs that allowed his group at the Roslin Institute in Scotland to be the first to successfully clone an animal from a single cell of an adult mammal.

Wilmut's group made use of a relatively new technology termed "somatic cell nuclear transfer."

Wilmut's successful cloning of a sheep, using donor nuclei of a mammary cell of an adult sheep presented an affront to the accepted notions that differentiated cells had lost the potential to give rise to all the cells in a full animal.

Cloning research was initiated at the Roslin Institute in pursuit of better means of agriculture production, Wilmut said. This technology could be used "to produce groups of genetically identical animals" to provide for more uniform quality and efficient production, he said.

Idea of cloning humans examined

Wilmut also addressed the numerous social and ethical implications of his research.

Wilmut raised several scenarios in which cloning human beings might be useful. While initial cloning experiments were performed on sheep, more interesting possibilities arise in applying this technology to humans, he said.

Using cloning to overcome infertility, "to recover lost relatives," to circumvent mitochondrial diseases transmitted from mother to daughter, and to create "selected children" were among the possibilities opened by human cloning, Wilmut said.

One could envision that parents would want to clone famed movie stars to raise as their own, he said. Parents would not, however, "get the exact human copy that they were looking for," because of environmental determinants, he said.

Wilmut raised objections to the use of cloning technology to produce selected children. "We should treat each child as an individual but this would be saying I want you to be like this other person,'" he said.

Technology aids medical research

This cloning technology could also further biomedical research by using sheep as models in the study of disease, Wilmut said.

For example, to study the inherited disorder cystic fibrosis, researchers could modify the sheep's copy of the gene found mutated in human CF patients, he said. This would provide a new CFmodel which could be used for physiological studies, drug development, and possibly gene therapy, Wilmut said.

Cloning technology could also be applied to treat human beings, by using cell-based therapies, Wilmut said. One example of a proposed treatment would involve taking cells from a patient, correcting the genetic defect, and subsequently transferring the corrected cells back into the patient as needed, he said.

Using germline therapy, one could also aim to treat diseases in the context of a full human being, Wilmut said. This would involve directly changing the genetic composition of a pre-embryo cell, he said.

There is a "slippery slope in contemplating changing [the genetics of] human beings," Wilmut said. "We do not understand enough about the nature of relations between genes and where would we draw the line?"