Playing God, the new frontier
By Faisal Kutty – Ian Wilmut, the Scottish scientist who made international news in the summer of 1996 with his cloned sheep, Dolly, has pushed the boundaries of cloning again. This time, his achievement did not get the same level of attention, although the consequences may be more far-reaching. Due to the silence in the mainstream media, opposition and debate was virtually non-existent compared to the initial controversy surrounding Dolly.
Now Wilmut has taken it one step farther. The British patent office granted his Roslin Institute a patent on the cloning process used to create Dolly as well as all other animals cloned using the process. In an unprecedented twist, the patent went further and granted the institute intellectual property rights to all human embryos created by Wilmut’s cloning process up to the blastocyst stage (a cluster of about 140 cells). Those embryos, in legal terms, are patented inventions.
First, some background. Dolly was cloned from the genetic material of a grown sheep. Essentially, she was produced by removing the nucleus from a mature sheep cell and placing it into a sheep egg cell, from which its own nucleus had been removed ahead of time. The resulting embryo was then placed into the uterus of another sheep, which carried and delivered the lamb.
Two different procedures are known as cloning. The one described above is embryo cloning. The other is DNA cloning. For our purposes, both raise the same issues. The implications of Wilmut’s achievement in 1996 were enormous. Scientists were now able create embryos artificially from every mammalian cell, including humans. This embryo would develop into an identical copy of the donor from whose cell the nucleus was removed. The ethical and moral questions raised by this potential concerned many. Indeed, Richard Nicholson from the British Bulletin of Medical Ethics stated for the record at the time that cloning research may be “sowing the seeds of our destruction.”
The concerns were not restricted to scientists. In fact, a 1997 CNN poll found 89 per cent of American adults felt cloning was morally unacceptable. The initial debate and opposition has died down considerably and the proponents of unrestrained cloning are moving the boundaries further. Wilmut’s recent achievement was only inevitable given that regulation is minimal or slow. Newer thresholds are crossed without any serious debate as to the moral, ethical, and social issues. Consider some of the highlights:
* November 1998: Advanced Cell Technologies, an American company, announced the first cloning of a human embryo using DNA. The procedure involved removing DNA from a man’s leg and inserting it into a cow’s egg. The first embryo cloning of humans was reportedly done much earlier, in 1994 by Robert J. Stillman.
* April 27, 1999: A Canadian company, Nexia Biotechnologies Inc., produced the world’s first cloned goats. The Montreal-based company plans to produce transgenic animals — goats with a human gene — to produce milk. The milk will contain a special protein that would be extracted to treat certain medical conditions in humans.
* January 13, 2000: The Oregon Regional Primate Research Center cloned a rhesus monkey by splitting an embryo into four parts. This was yet another breakthrough as the procedure was significantly different from that used produce Dolly.
Now, by granting this patent, the British government has gone where no other government has gone before and granted ownership rights in a developing human being. And this was done with little publicity or real opposition.
The patent has been licenced to California-based biotech firm Geron Corporation. Geron has said it does not intend to clone full humans. Yet, the fact that we can grant ownership of embryos to a corporation challenges certain fundamental postulates held by many. With humans owning other humans (however incomplete) what happens to our notion of humans?
What impact will this have on our understanding of human life if embryos are corporate property? How will we address the inevitable demand for designer babies and superbabies in the ever-competitive world? If the early phase of human development can be patented, what is to prevent further stages from being patented?
Cloning research itself must be scrutinized and controlled. Without stringent regulation cloning research is headed down the proverbial slippery slope. Indeed, the potential for misuse and abuse is serious.
No doubt there are some benefits to cloning research for the field of medicine. And few would argue for a total ban. Indeed, proponents have touted cloning research as holding potential cures for a number of diseases. The Human Cloning Foundation, a pro-cloning group, even touts it as possibly allowing us to find a “cure” for the aging process. As well, the research is vital for the production of cells, organs and tissues. But these cannot blind us to the serious issues that such research raises.
Harold Shapiro, chairman of the U.S. National Bioethics Advisory Committee, said that research into human cloning is being conducted with “stunning speed.” In his view, human cloning may be “impossible to stop.” The fact that the situation is so overwhelming must not stop us from regulating this area.
We can start by asking elected officials and proponents of uncontrolled cloning research: How is it that a corporation is allowed to own a stage of human development as intellectual property barely 135 years after the U.S. officially abolished the right of one human being to own another as property?
Faisal Kutty is a Toronto-based lawyer and freelance writer.
Note: First Published Hamilton Spectator (Ontario, Canada) March 30, 2000
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