Cloning pioneer says duplication of humans taboo

08/07/2007
By Used with permission from the Lowell Sun Online By SUSAN McMAHON Sun Staff

LOWELL -- When cloning pioneer Dr. James Robl first began traveling down the path of embryos and cell nuclei, he just wanted to make a few good cows.

Along the way, he has created bovines with medicine in their milk and cleared the path for the development of a cloned human embryo. But the agricultural aspect of cloning -- the possibility of providing dairy farmers with more and better cows -- was always the primary goal.

"The only thing I wanted to do was take a good cow and make lots of copies of it," he told a UMass Lowell crowd.

Yesterday, a week after President George W. Bush spoke out against all forms of human cloning, urging the Senate to support far-reaching legislation banning the practice, the cloning expert spoke to a packed room at UMass Lowell, discussing the history, mechanics and possibilities of one of the most controversial aspects of modern research.

Robl is the president, chief scientific officer and co-founder of Hematech of Westport, Conn. His appearance was the first in a seminar series sponsored by UMass Lowell's college of arts and sciences. Robl was a professor at UMass Amherst for 17 years and has been involved in the start-up of several biotech companies.

Standing in front of the crowd, with television screens on either side imitating his every move, Robl took his audience through the history of cloning, from the first days in the 1980s, when researchers successfully began transplanting cell nuclei into eggs, to the suddenly real possibility of human cloning.

Yet the basic technology for cloning a human embryo has been around since the early days of nuclear transfer. Scientists simply assumed it would not be possible.

"The only reason we didn't do it 15 years ago is that we all knew it couldn't be done, so we didn't try it," Robl said.

Recent research at Advanced Cell Technology in Worcester has produced a cloned human embryo, a breakthrough in science that some politicians worry could lead to the full-fledged cloning of a human being.

Yet Robl says the ethical dilemma presented by the possibility of human clones isn't even an issue yet. A video presentation on the "to clone/not to clone" debate showed only one reason under the "to clone" column -- treatment for fertility cases.

On the other side of the screen were six reasons against human cloning, including the need for large numbers of eggs, large numbers of women willing to be surrogate mothers, high embryo and fetal loss, and low survival of offspring.

Cloning is inefficient, requiring several attempts to make just one successful offspring. Clones often die shortly after birth. And those that don't have the potential for abnormalities.

Simply, the science does not even support the possibility of cloning a human being.

"In my view ... human reproductive cloning is not an ethical issue, it's simply a biological issue. We're not even there yet," Robl said. "There's no way whatsoever anybody should be doing human reproductive cloning."

Yet cloning in other areas is possible, and is being done. Robl cloned two cows from a bovine named Zita, who produced huge amounts of milk and was ranked as the top cow in the country. The two offspring were produced in the hopes that they, too, will be quality dairy cows.

Robl has also done work that transforms cows into producers of human antibodies. By using cloning techniques, and replacing a cow's antibody genes with a human's, researchers can inject the cow with a vaccine, which forces the cows to produce antibodies to fight off the weakened virus. Scientists then take a vial of the cow's blood, which can be used for a patient with an immune deficiency disorder to increase his ability to fight off infection.

In his hourlong seminar yesterday, Robl opened wide the minds of biology students who were present, many of whom are interested in pursuing cloning research.

"It was interesting," said biology student Tom Chau of Lowell. "That's the field I want to go into, but it was a lot of stuff I didn't know."

As far as the future goes, Robl didn't make any predictions. But he did say the try-it-and-see approach that has produced the happy accidents that have moved the field of cloning forward would have to give way to a more methodical analysis.

"It was not the result of years and years of methodical research that led up to this. It was a couple of different accidents in a couple of different laboratories," he said. "For the next few years, the focus of this effort will be to see what it is that we're doing."