Advanced Cell Technology (ACT) made headline news last month claiming to have successfully produced a human embryo clone.
According to their research published in the online journal, e-biomed, ACT had created both a human embryo clone and had also succeeded in getting a human egg cell to divide on its own just like an embryo but without the addition of any further genetic material i.e.a sperm cell. This process is known as parthenogenesis.
ACT's announcement sparked off a rapid debate across the globe on the ethics and morality of human cloning. Although ACT asserted that their research was focused purely on producing stem cells with the aim of finding cures for degenerative diseases such as Leukemia, Parkinsons and Multiple Sclerosis, many organization, governments and individuals have been very wary of their announcement or in fact any future developments by other organizations.
As a privately funded company based in Massachusetts, ACT are currently allowed to undertake research into the development of human embryo clones. At present legislation only prevents taxpayers money being spent on research in this area. However this sort of progress into human cloning by private companies may result in further legislation being put in place in the USA.
Other countries such as Japan, Portugal, Germany, Spain have totally banned research into human cloning. There are at least 30 countries worldwide who have instigated a human cloning ban but this still leaves well over 150 countries with no current bans.
In the debate surrounding human cloning, advocates propose a number of key benefits to justify research and development. These include the possibility of achieving the following:
At present however, all of the above possibilities of human cloning are purely hypothetical and none have been achieved. It is not yet known whether any of the above are attainable. This is not a complete list of the benefits of human cloning but through these examples there are already causes for concern.
- Rejuvenation - reversing the aging process
- Heart attack reversal - cloning healthy heart cells and injecting them into the damaged area
- Human stem cells - grown to replace organs or tissues that have been damaged
- Plastic, reconstructive or cosmetic surgery - through manufacturing human materials exactly
- Breast implants - using identical tissue
- Defective genes - removing defective genes
- Down Syndrome - avoided through human cloning
- Tay-Sachs Disease - using cloning to ensure the gene for the disorder is not expressed
- Liver failure - Liver clones for transplant
- Kidney failure - Kidneys for transplant
- Leukemia - Cloning bone marrow
- Cancer - through learning how to switch cells on and off, cancer cures may be possible
- Cystic Fibrosis - gene therapy to prevent and cure CF
- Spinal Cord Injury - learning to grow nerves
- Testing for Genetic Disease
Source: Human Cloning Organization
Immediately, George Orwell's novel '1984' and Aldous Huxley's 'Brave New World' spring to mind. Out of the examples listed rejuvenation, infertility, cosmetic surgery, and defective genes already place the emphasis of human cloning on perfection. That is, altering the DNA sequence to achieve the desires of other humans or to produce a more perfect individual in the eyes of the creator.
The last century witnessed the disastrous results of such an ideology with Hitler and the Nazi philosophy who believed that blond hair and blue eyes were ultimately the supreme race. Unfortunately, it is not hard to find such extremist beliefs today all over the world. Fortunately at this time, there is noone in such a powerful position as Hitler was in the mid 20th century. The development of human cloning to a level where it is readily available to persons of power who quite easily could have such underlying beliefs and goals is a terrifying one.
Other serious concerns surround evolution. Some believe that by interfering with DNA and the genetics of humans we will place the human race in a deadly position. What may appear as a perfect gene sequence now may cause the downfall of the race in as little as 500 years. Diversity allows humans to adapt and modify to their environment with the survival of the fittest at the heart of the matter. Genetic modification alters the process of natural selection and may make humans the victims of better adapted enemies. The more similar humans are, the more likely there will be a wide-scale failure to new disease. Humans are not able to see into the future and therefore are unable to predict future events and future requirements of the species.
Scientists are only at the beginning phases of understanding the extremely complex arena of genetics. The mystery of the DNA double helix was only discovered by James Watson and Francis Crick in 1953. The recent discovery of arthritis in Dolly the Sheep clone supports this assertion. Sometimes by altering the DNA sequence, the perceived or desired effects are not always the actual result and sometimes the results do not appear for some time. When applied to the complicated sequences of humans, the consequences of developing human clones without understanding how they may evolve in 10, 15, 30 years holds great risks.
For most religious groups, humans taking the role of creator is totally unacceptable, unethical and ultimately takes away the beauty & uniqueness of human beings.
Despite such concerns, without a global ban on human cloning, research and development will continue. How close then are we to the cloning of a human being? According to British scientists who created Dolly the Sheep clone, assertions that have been made by ACT are not major breakthroughs. For instance, an embryo with only 6 cells was documented, when to be significant, it should have had more than 200 cells. At present it is thought that ACT could be a long way off from creating usable stem cells which would need the formation of a blastocyte (clump of 100 to 150 cells).
ACT of course are only one privately owned company undertaking human cloning research. There could well be many other organizations further along the path who have not yet publicized their findings. It would seem vital then that some form of global regulation of human cloning is initiated and that this happens in the not too distant future.