Speaker: Cloning can yield medical advances

by Melanie Evansand

Dolly is expecting. The year-old cloned ewe which turned the world’s eyes to Scotland last year is pregnant, Keith Campbell told about 250 medical school students and faculty Thursday at the Phillips-Wangensteen building on the University’s East bank.
Campbell and Dr. Ian Wilmut — with a team of researchers from the Roslin Institute in Scotland — captured the world’s attention last February when they introduced Dolly, the world’s first sheep cloned from a single cell of a six-year old sheep.
The group’s discovery sparked more questions than it answered. The soft-eyed sheep quickly captured the imagination of the world.
And as scientists absorbed the Roslin Institute’s new method, heralding the sheep as a breakthrough for developmental biology, society struggled with a broader question: was the Scottish researchers’ creation a medical miracle or potential monster?
With the University’s expertise in gene therapy and bone marrow and organ transplantation, the school should look to be a pioneer in Campbell’s field, said Dr. Larry Schook, associate dean of research for the College of Veterinary Medicine, who invited Campbell to campus.
“We’re very interested in the technologies that he’s talking about in terms of experimental therapeutics,” Schook said.
Campbell fielded more scientific than ethical questions from his audience, who showed interest in the medical applications the breakthrough might have.
Using the process that cloned Dolly, researchers can tailor the genetic make-up of animals like sheep or cows, Campbell said. The hybrid animals could then produce human proteins or blood-clotting agents in their milk.
Both are projects he is working on with British-owned PPL Laboratories. The American Red Cross in Virginia, where PPL Laboratories is based, has expressed interest in the new blood-clotting technique.
Further research could unlock the mysteries surrounding the ways in which cells differentiate, Campbell told the crowd.
Understanding that process could allow scientists to produce human nerve cells, which the body is unable to replace.
Controlling the cell specialization process could also be used to genetically alter a pig’s heart — already similar to that of a human — to be fit for human implantation, Campbell said.
The only other name as familiar to the audience as the revolutionary sheep’s was Richard Seed, the Chicago physicist who declared on Jan 7. that he would clone humans in 18 months.
The announcement further fueled public fear that technology was racing out of control and generated a firestorm of proposed legislation from lawmakers.
Seed’s announcement prompted 19 European nations to call for an international ban on human cloning.
President Clinton has repeatedly called for a five-year ban on reproducing humans by the Roslin Institute’s method. The president included the plea in his State of the Union address.
Seed tapped America’s fear of the “mad scientist” said first-year medical student Joanna Martin, who attended Thursday’s lecture.
“The man is perceived as the worse case scenario of what could go wrong,” said Dr. Harry Orr, a professor of laboratory medicine in the University’s Institute of Human Genetics.
The debate surrounding Seed detracts from the strong legacy of knowledge derived from 40 years of cloning in animals, said Dr. Robert McKinnell, a professor of genetics and cell biology.
Scientists began cloning frogs in the early 1950s, McKinnell said. His work cloning frogs began in 1958. The University professor has based his cancer research on the amphibians.
“The people who are working away in the trenches, the real cloners, are working on problems that are of a great concern to most Americans,” McKinnell said.
The Roslin scientists weren’t simply attempting to increase the United Kingdom’s sheep population, McKinnell said. Rather they were searching for answers to key questions of developmental biology.
The latest public outcry has pitted lawmakers against researchers who argue the real danger is not the prospect of cloning a human, but rather an over-broad ban on the study of cloning that would stifle genetics and reproductive research.
Public fear stems from a lack of education in the sciences, Campbell said.
“There is a use and abuse for every piece of technology,” Campbell said.
He said he hopes breakthroughs like Dolly’s will heighten public interest in the basic sciences, not the reverse.
While human medicine will benefit from further study, Campbell said he can see no medical reason why humans should be cloned.
“I’m dead against it,” Campbell said.
“People view cloning as playing God,” said Jeffrey Kahn, director of the University’s center of bioethics. “It’s the ability to create and make the decision about what genetic composition a child would have.”
Concerns and questions warrant further research, said Kahn, not censorship.
“The safety issue is huge, but we’re not going to overcome that by a complete and total ban on any research,” Kahn said.
Kahn said he believes the best way to control further studies is with extensive oversight.
McKinnell said he supports thoughtful legislation that would prohibit experiments on human cloning. Funds directed toward the proposed research could be better used for preventative medicine, McKinnell said.
“We don’t need 10 Mark Yudofs. One is enough,” McKinnell said.