Posted on December 20, 2004


Mengele On The Monongahela

Pitt monkeys with embryonic life


Daniel Clark



The University of Pittsburgh cloning study whose results were recently published did not involve any human subjects. From an ethical standpoint, that might be the only thing that can be said in its favor.

Mengele on the Monongahela?

As explained by Dr. Gerald Schatten, the head of the research group that conducted the experiment, there were two separate areas of study involved. First, the scientists cloned monkey embryos, partly for the purpose of establishing a method by which human embryos could be likewise produced for stem cell research. Second, they attempted to implant some of the monkey clones into 25 surrogate mothers.

Schatten insists that this latter phase of the study is not a harbinger of similar efforts to be carried out using human subjects. Instead, he and his colleagues were trying to produce a series of genetically identical monkeys for use in experimentation, so that the accuracy of the results would be improved by reducing the number of variables. "I am 10,000 percent in favor of responsible legislation that no one ever attempt human reproductive cloning," he insisted in April of 2003, according to an article in the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette.

For those unfamiliar with the euphemistic lexicon of embryonic experimentation, "reproductive cloning" is what they call it when an already cloned embryo is implanted and grown in the womb. The cloning of embryos for experimentation is what is inaccurately referred to as "therapeutic cloning." There is actually no such thing as non-reproductive cloning, since cloning is by definition a reproductive process. Moreover, any therapeutic benefit to cloning is at this point theoretical. So in reality, all cloning is reproductive, and none of it is yet known to be therapeutic.

What Schatten means, then, is that he is in favor of the type of human cloning in which the clones are destroyed, and their stem cells taken, while still in the pre-implantation stage. What he says he fervently opposes is the implantation of those embryos with the intention that they be born, at least in part because the likelihood of deformities could pose a danger to both mother and child.

There's no reason to doubt his sincerity about this, but his opinion on the matter is of little relevance when compared to the impact of his work. If his team of scientists succeeds in bringing about the birth of cloned monkeys (which so far it has not), then he will have handed a blueprint to those who want to conduct similar experiments on humans, whether he personally approves or not.

Thankfully, that development appears more distant than commonly believed, due to a discovery that the Pitt research team has made along the way. They found that the nuclei of primate eggs differ from those of other animals in that a higher percentage of the cell's motor proteins are concentrated around the chromosomes. Motor proteins are instrumental in cell division, because they help arrange the chromosomes on their mitotic spindles as they are copied. Without them, the result is what Schatten calls "a car wreck of chromosomes," in which new cells are reproduced with scrambled and incomplete genetic material.

Did somebody say 'ethics'?

According to the Pitt study, most mammals' eggs have an even enough distribution of motor proteins throughout the cell that the ones that would be extracted from the nucleus are comparatively expendable. This is what has made it possible for the lives of cloned sheep, mice, rabbits and other animals to be sustained beyond birth, although they have still exhibited severe genetic defects and shortened lifespans. In the case of primate cloning, by contrast, the number of motor proteins is much greater in the nucleus of the egg than in that of the somatic cell. The new embryo, missing the difference between the two, cannot reproduce its cells with enough genetic consistency to make a live birth feasible.

This was never part of the bargain. The public has consistently been told that the nucleus of an egg cell and that of a somatic cell are absolutely interchangeable. The whole advantage to cloning is supposed to be that it produces an exact genetic copy of the somatic cell donor. If a man had a spinal cord injury, he theoretically could be cloned to produce stem cells that could be grown into spinal cord tissue genetically identical to that which was already in his body. Now we're finding that this isn't necessarily true, but it doesn't seem to be slowing the political momentum of the cloning movement one bit.

Is Pitt monkeying with the future?

Although it doesn't look like we'll be seeing the birth of a cloned baby anytime in the near future, the Pitt experiment does indicate that a cloned human embryo might soon be grown to the point where its stem cells can be extracted. The presumed benefit of this is that it would dramatically reduce the possibility of rejection. For that reason, cloning is presented as the best hope for curing diseases through stem cell research. But will the patients be informed that those stem cells were derived from genetically defective embryos with a fatal protein deficiency?

Don't count on it. Advocates of destructive embryonic experimentation already argue that the non-viability of a human embryo proves that it cannot "grow into a person," therefore there are no serious ethical concerns about killing that already existing, embryonic human being. If anything, the discovery of a consistent fatal flaw in cloned human embryos will probably be used to reassure patients of the moral validity of destroying them for their stem cells.

This is not to say that researchers are giving up on the possibility of producing newborn clones. Schatten's group discovered the motor protein complication back in early 2003, but still continued to implant cloned monkey embryos, with the aid of a taxpayer-provided $6.4 million grant from the National Institutes of Health.

Another who is undeterred is Dr. Don Wolf, a former colleague of Schatten's from the Oregon National Primate Research Center. "Dr. Schatten may be quite correct in his assessments of motor protein deficits," he conceded, as quoted by the Post-Gazette. "I still remain convinced that reproductive cloning in primates is possible, albeit at low efficiency."

Wolf does not advocate a ban on implanting cloned human embryos like Schatten does, but he does agree that no such project should be undertaken at this time, given what is currently known about the expected complications. In an October 2001 interview with PBS's NOVA Online, he was asked whether anyone in the scientific community might take the work he was doing with monkeys and apply it to humans. "I don't know of anybody who's interested in moving in that direction," he answered. "Most people would say that's absolutely insane." So why restrict his considerations to sane people?

A leading consultant to Clonaid

Dr. Panos Zavos of the University of Kentucky, and his Italian colleague Dr. Severino Antinori, announced their intention to clone a human child in January of 2001. Zavos testified before Congress on May 15, 2002, lauding the potential of "reproductive cloning" to help infertile couples, while claiming that his cause was the victim of a smear campaign by animal researchers. Perhaps Zavos and Antinori are not accepted by the mainstream of the "scientific community," but is it so implausible that they could use information from monkey cloning research to further their aims?

French former auto racer Claude Vorilhon, also known as "Rael," the leader of the Raelian cult, created a company called Clonaid in 1997. Clonaid is dedicated to producing human clones for the Raelians, who believe they can achieve eternal life through cloning. The Raelians profess to believe that human beings were created by extra-terrestrial scientists. One of these aliens is supposed to have appeared to Vorilhon and explained that people can live forever by having themselves cloned, and then transplanting their memory into the younger versions of themselves. Since its founding, Clonaid has been working toward this goal, and has by now claimed to have successfully cloned multiple human children.

Watch those brain cells scramble!

Are the Raelians insane? Indubitably. Are Clonaid's claims of cloning successes genuine? Almost definitely not. But do they employ any scientists who are capable of making use of the Pitt monkey experiments? Who knows? Scientists and loonies do not fall into mutually exclusive categories. Some might even say that they intersect with disproportionate frequency. After all, the term "mad scientist" is much more widely used than "mad actuary" or "mad elevator repairman."

If so-called "reproductive cloning" is insane, then the government of the state of New Jersey went completely bonkers almost a year ago, when it implemented a cloning "ban" whose language allows the implantation of human embryos, and the cultivation of them in the womb for experimentation. If the Pitt researchers, or those who follow them, can find a way to overcome the motor protein obstacle, then the technology will exist to create human embryos ripe for implantation. Schatten and Wolf may oppose using them for that purpose, but who's to stop it? At that point, cloned human fetuses could legally be farmed for spare parts in at least one of the United States.

The monkey researchers would surely not think themselves responsible for these unintended consequences. All they want to do is to create a bunch of animals that are likely to be severely deformed, and then to maybe make some human embryos for the purpose of killing them for their stem cells. Who would ever have thought that anything unethical could come of that?



Return to Shinbone

 The Shinbone: The Frontier of the Free Press 

 Mailbag . Issue Index . Politimals