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30 Mar 2001 00:00
Dr Ian Wilmut, the scientist who led the team behind Dolly the sheep, launched a passionate attack this week on plans to clone humans, saying it would be “extremely cruel” for the mothers and resultant children.
In an article in the American journal Science, Wilmut denounced the declared aim of the Italian and United States fertility specialists Severino Antinori and Panos Zavos to clone humans and enable infertile men to pass on their genes.
In language a world away from the optimism in 1997 at the birth of Dolly, Wilmut warned that four years of experiments on animals had shown the cloning technique to be deeply flawed, exacting a huge toll of miscarriages and deformities.
The polemic, written jointly with a US biologist, was timed for hearings in the US House of Representatives on human cloning. They are due to take evidence from Zavos and others including the leader of the Raelian cult, who claims to have met aliens and who plans to beat the Antinori-Zavos partnership.
Since Dolly, scientists have cloned mice, cattle, goats and pigs. Wilmut points out that very few cloned embryos survive to birth and many of these die shortly after. Survivors are often grotesquely large or have defects.
Wilmut is sceptical of the Zavos-Antinori claim that decades of in vitro fertility work helping infertile couples enable them to screen cloned human embryos for defects before they are implanted in the uterus.
A normal child has a 50-50 mix of its father’s and mother’s genes, prepared for their embryonic role in eggs and sperm over months and years. In cloning, the genes are almost entirely from one parent and their calibration is done in minutes.
No in vitro fertility clinic has the capability to screen all an embryo’s genes for problems, said Wilmut.
He told of a cloned lamb born in December at his institute in Roslin near Edinburgh. “It could run about perfectly normally but it hyperventilated all the time; it panted night and day. We tried to treat it, but in the end decided it was kinder to put it down. “What would Antinori do if he produced a cloned child like that? “Attempting to clone a human would be extremely cruel for the woman and children involved, and there could be a backlash against valuable research into cloning to create cells for therapeutic purposes.”
Wilmut’s decision to enter the debate may see him confront Antinori at a cloning conference in Monte Carlo later this year. He said he thought that another quantum leap, as great as that to create Dolly, was needed to make cloning reliable. That might take 50 years. Even then he would oppose human cloning on social and ethical grounds. “A parent of a cloned child would be much more likely than usual to impose their expectations and limitations on the child, because they’ll think: ‘This child is like me, therefore I know how it’s going to behave.’ David Beckham’s son, Brooklyn, may be under a lot of pressure to become a footballer. But if he was genetically identical to his father, that pressure would be even greater.”
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