Human Cloning is the Least Interesting Application of Cloning Technology

January 4, 2003

All responsible ethicists, including this author, consider human cloning at the present time to be unethical. The reasons have nothing to do with the slippery (slope) issues of manipulating human life. Rather, the technology today simply does not work reliably. The current technique of fusing a cell nucleus from a donor to an egg cell using an electric spark causes a high level of genetic errors.

This is the primary reason that most of the fetuses created in this way do not make it to term. Those that do nonetheless have genetic defects. Dolly developed an obesity problem in adulthood, and the majority of the cloned animals produced thus far have had unpredictable health problems.

Scientists have a number of ideas for perfecting this process, including alternative ways of fusing the nucleus and egg cell, but until the technology is demonstrably safe, it would be unethical to create a human life with such a high likelihood of severe health problems.

Regardless of whether or not the recent announcement of a cloned baby turns out to be legitimate, there is no doubt that human cloning will occur, and occur soon, driven by all the usual reasons, ranging from its publicity value to its utility as a very weak form of immortality. The methods that are demonstrable in advanced animals will work quite well in humans. Once the technology is perfected in terms of safety, the ethical barriers will be feeble if they exist at all.

In my view, cloning is an extremely important technology, but the cloning of humans is the least of it. Let me first address its most valuable applications and then return to its most controversial one.

The early 21st century will be shaped by accelerating and interacting technological transformations, all based in one way or another on information. These include the explicit information technologies of intelligent machines, robotics, nanotechnology, and virtual reality. Of perhaps even more immediate impact on human longevity and well-being will be the multiple and intersecting biological revolutions, which are based on understanding the information processes underlying life and disease, such as rational drug design, genomics, proteomics, and genetic cloning.

Why is cloning important?

The most immediate application of cloning is improved breeding by being able to directly reproduce an animal with a desirable set of genetic traits. A powerful example is reproducing animals from transgenic embryos (embryos with foreign genes) for pharmaceutical production. A case in point: one of the most promising new anti-cancer treatments is an antiangiogenesis drug (a drug that inhibits tumors from creating the new capillary networks needed for their growth) called aaATIII, which is produced in the milk of transgenic goats.

Another exciting application is recreating animals from endangered species. By cryopreserving cells from these species, they never need become extinct. It will eventually be possible to recreate animals from recently extinct species. This past year, scientists were able to synthesize DNA for the Tasmanian Tiger, which has been extinct for 65 years, with the hope of bringing this species back to life. As for long extinct species (e.g., dinosaurs), there is a high level of doubt that we will find the fully intact DNA required in a single preserved cell, but it is quite possible that we will eventually be able to synthesize the DNA needed by patching together the information derived from multiple inactive fragments.

Therapeutic cloning

Another valuable emerging application is therapeutic cloning of one’s own organs. Here we don’t clone the entire person (you), but rather directly create one of your organs. By starting with germ line cells, differentiation (into different types of cells) is triggered prior to the formation of a fetus. Because differentiation takes place during the pre-fetal stage (i.e., prior to implantation of a fetus), most ethicists believe that this process does not raise ethical concerns, although this issue has been highly contentious.

Another highly promising approach is "human somatic cell engineering," which bypasses fetal stem cells entirely. These emerging technologies create new tissues with a patient’s own DNA by modifying one type of cell (such as a skin cell) directly into another (such as a pancreatic Islet cell or a heart cell) without the use of fetal stem cells. There have been breakthroughs in this area in the past year. For example, scientists from the U.S. and Norway successfully converted human skill cells directly into immune system cells and nerve cells.

Consider the question: What is the difference between a skin cell and any other type of cell in the body? After all, they all have the same DNA. The differences are found in protein signaling factors that we are now beginning to understand. By manipulating these proteins, we can trick one type of cell into becoming another.

Perfecting this technology would not only diffuse a contentious ethical and political issue, it is also the ideal solution from a scientific perspective. If I need pancreatic Islet cells, or kidney tissues&#8212or a even whole new heart&#8212to avoid autoimmune reactions, I would strongly prefer to obtain these with my own DNA, not the DNA from someone else’s germ line cells.

This process will directly grow an organ with your genetic makeup. Perhaps most importantly, the new organ has its telemeres (the chemical "beads" at the end of DNA that get shorter every time a cell divides) fully extended to their original youthful length, so that the new organ is effectively young again. So an 80-year-old man could have his heart replaced with his own "25-year-old" heart.

The injection of pancreatic Islet cells is already showing great promise in treating type I Diabetes, but contemporary treatments require strong anti-rejection drugs, and the availability of these cells for transplantation is very limited. With this type of somatic cell engineering, a type I Diabetic will be able to produce his own Islet cells with his own genetic makeup, eliminating both the rejection and availability problems and thereby curing his Diabetes.

Even more exciting is the prospect of replacing one’s organs and tissues with their "young" telomere-extended replacements without surgery. By introducing cloned telomere-extended cells into an organ, these cells will integrate themselves with the older cells. By repeated treatments of this kind over a period of time, the organ will end up being dominated by the younger cells. We normally replace our own cells on a regular basis anyway, so why not do so with youthful telomere-extended cells rather than telomere-shortened ones? There’s no reason why we couldn’t do this with every organ and tissue in our body. We would thereby grow progressively younger.

Solving world hunger

Another exciting opportunity is to create meat without animals. As with therapeutic cloning, we would not be creating the entire animal, but rather directly producing the desired animal parts or flesh. Essentially, all of the meat&#8212billions of pounds of it&#8212would in essence be from a single animal. What’s the point of doing this? For one thing, we could eliminate human hunger.

By creating meat in this way, it becomes subject to the "law of accelerating returns," which is the exponential improvements in price-performance of information based technologies over time. So meat produced in this way will ultimately be extremely inexpensive. It could cost less than one percent of conventionally produced meat. Even though hunger in the world today is certainly exacerbated by political issues and conflicts, meat will become so inexpensive that it will have a profound effect on the affordability of food.

The advent of animal-less meat will also eliminate animal suffering. The economics of factory farming place a very low priority on the comfort and life style of the animals. They are essentially cogs in a machine, and suffer on a massive scale. Although animal activists may prefer that everyone become a vegetarian, that is not likely, and some research suggests would not be ideal for everyone from a nutritional perspective. With animal-less meat, there would be no animal suffering. We could use the same approach for such animal byproducts as leather, and, dare I say, fur. The enormous ecological damage created by factory farming would also be eliminated. And we could produce meat with a far more desirable nutritional profile.

Which brings us again to human cloning, in my mind the least interesting application. Once the technology is perfected (which is not the case today), I see neither the acute ethical dilemmas nor the profound promise that ethicists and enthusiasts have debated. So we’ll have genetic twins separated by one or more generations: it’s the sort of idea society absorbs in its sleep. It’s far different from mental cloning in which a person’s entire personality, memory, skills, and history will ultimately be downloaded into a different, and most likely more powerful, thinking medium. There’s no issue of philosophical identity with genetic cloning-genetic clones are different people, even more so than conventional twins today.

But if we consider the full concept of cloning from cell to organisms, the benefits have enormous synergy with the other revolutions occurring in biology as well as in computer technology. As we learn to understand the genome of both humans and animals, and as we develop powerful new means of harnessing genetic information, cloning provides the means to replicate animals, organs, and cells. And that has profound implications for health and well-being, of both ourselves and our evolutionary cousins in the animal kingdom.