By Arvin Charles
It has been 21 years since we witnessed the most memorable breakthrough in cloning technology with the success of the ever famous Dolly the Sheep, the first mammal to be cloned from an adult somatic cell. The birth of Dolly demonstrated to the world that an exact replica of a mammal can be produced from specialized parent cells. Evidently, cloning technologies have been around for many years and is currently being used by scientists and researchers worldwide to make human embryos for the production of stem cells. With sci-fi phenomena such as the creation of clone storm troopers in Star Wars or even the dinosaurs in Jurassic World, one might often pause to wonder if human cloning will ever take place in the decades to come.
Is human cloning possible?
Experts predict that human cloning is in fact biologically possible. However, putting aside morale and ethical issues, the resources needed to achieve this colossal feat proves to be a major barrier. Although scientists have cloned many mammals since the dawn of this knowledge such as mice, frogs, pigs, sheep and cows, the process of cloning is heavily reliant on trial and error to produce a clone. According to Dr. Robert Lanza, a chief scientific officer from an Advanced Cell Technology, a biotech company which develop cell therapies to combat human diseases, cloning is a game of numbers and the greater the number of eggs available to conduct experiments to solve the problems associated to cloning a particular species, the higher the chance of producing healthy, living clones. Hence, it is much easier to clone smaller mammals like mice as thousands of eggs are easily available for researchers to conduct their experiments compared to primates where eggs are very precious as they are difficult to obtain and experiments must be planned and conducted with the utmost caution. In addition to that, the same experimental procedures and techniques cannot be applied for one species to another owing to differences in genetic material. Thus, researchers are unable to utilize knowledge from cloning mice to higher organisms like cows or even humans, and hence the cycle of trial and error has to be repeated for each species.
Apart from that, cloned organisms often have genetic abnormalities namely embryos being unable to attach themselves to the uterus, spontaneous miscarriages of the fetus or abnormalities that could cause the cloned animal to die shortly after birth. According to Dr. Lanza, these abnormalities arises from the fact that the cloned embryos possess only one parent instead of two. This results in complications of the molecular process called imprinting which is crucial in embryonic development and silences certain genes from one parent to the other. Problems with the imprinting process also heralds greater complications like abnormally large placentas during fetal development causing blood circulation difficulties. An example of this would be Dr. Lanza’s own experience when cloning a species of cattle called banteng which was born at twice the size of a regular banteng and inevitably had to be euthanized.
Thus, the extremely high risk of death, cloning abnormalities and the need for many experiments would be the biggest setbacks for human cloning and answers the question of why no human clone has ever been produced.
Why clone humans?
One of the primary objectives of human cloning is the eradication of genetic diseases. Studies have shown that every human being carries an average of 8 defective or mutated genes which would cause an otherwise healthy person to become ill. In order to eliminate these defective genes, the nucleus of an egg is removed and replaced with the DNA of a healthy cell, a skin cell for example. Hence, the development of diseases namely recessive diseases such as sickle cell anemia or chromosomal disorders like Down syndrome or Turner’s syndrome can be avoided all together.
Furthermore, human cloning could also be used to produce embryonic stem cells which is crucial in developing tissues and organs used to repair damaged ones. An example of this would be the treatment of ACL injuries in professional athletes or quadriplegics, whereby the patient’s own cells are cloned for rapid recovery and true healing. Stem cell research from human embryo cloning could also potentially be the key to curing diseases like Parkinson’s, Alzheimer’s and possibly even cancer.
Ethics of human cloning
Albeit having the potential to cure cancer and hereditary diseases, human cloning may also prove to be a living nightmare whereby the cons outweigh the pros. Contrary to popular belief, human cloning could potentially lead to various medical and health complications instead of fixing these problems. Genes grow older with age and there is an ongoing myth that the cloned individual would retain the age of the donor. Although scientists do not have a definitive answer for what causes aging in cells, most would agree that it has something to do with a part of the chromosome called the telomere which functions as a cell clock. These telomeres are usually long during birth and shrinks with age. The effect of this is apparent in the case of Dolly the Sheep, whereby her telomeres were unusually short compared to her donor and were not age-appropriate. Again, this is a hit and miss with many reports showing successful clones with age-appropriate telomeres as well, proving that age retention might not be a problem in human cloning. However, just the thought of a 50-year old gene inscribed in an embryo is enough to send shivers down your spine. Other health risks that can potentially affect human clones would be shortened life expectancy and also genetic diseases that can be carried forward in the cloned being.
Technological abuse is also a worrying issue when it comes to human cloning. Human cloning would eventually commercialize humans as a product rather than promoting individuality, escalating the race to ‘manufacture’ the perfect human and putting an end to nature’s way of diversity and variation. Some may even abuse this technology by creating a different clone to replace and repair defects in previous clones. For example, there may come a time where parents might even resort to making a new, perfect clone if they do not like the child they have. This would greatly diminish the value of life and family, removing love, family nurturing and the acceptance of each child as a unique and different individual. There would also be a social imbalance where the rich are able to play God and design perfect clones by selecting the traits they want in their offspring. Another utterly perverse way whereby clone technology can be misused is the creation of clones for the purpose of crimes and perhaps even war. Though it may sound dramatic, clones might actually be manufactured by people of power as a breed of living weapons for domination.
As for the cloned being, there will always be a reduced sense of individuality as the clone would be an exact copy of another human being though they may differ personality wise. They would also face the problem of social acceptance whereby society would view them as mere organ carriers rather than human individuals. Clones would also be viewed as a lower class of human beings with the sole purpose of serving existing humans. Matthew O’Gorman, a spokesperson for the pro-life group LIFE reminds us on what science fails to mention about the cloning process especially in the production of stem cells where thousands of cloned embryos are deliberately destroyed once their genetic material is utilized. Such an exploitation according to O’Gorman would treat the embryo as an instrument rather than an individual. Embryos are commanded into existence, cloned simply to service others and is a disgraceful example of science without sense.
In short, though the prospect of human cloning may bring about advancements in our knowledge of cell differentiation and probably a chance at curing certain illnesses, we have to take a step back and ask ourselves if the risks and the uncertainties associated with the cloning process is really worth it? Cloning may seem to be the most logical solution but the search for more morally acceptable and ethically justifiable solutions has to be a top priority among researchers and scientists.