Cover Story

Double trouble

With human cloning out of the realm of science fiction and into the realm of theoretical possibility, many researchers seem oblivious to the moral and ethical considerations. And legislators, whose responsibility is to translate morals and ethics into public policy, seem similarly out of their depth. What's simple in theory is more difficult in practice-and that's proving true in both science and politics.

Issue: "Cloning: Double trouble," March 7, 1998

HOUSTON--Sen. Bill Frist, the Tennessee Republican, must have thought it was going to be easy-after all, even the president had voiced his support for a ban, however temporary, on human cloning.

It got complicated. Democrats countered Sen. Frist's bill (a simple, permanent ban) with a hollow alternative: a 10-year moratorium on implanting cloned embryos into a woman's womb. That would allow scientists to create-and then force them to destroy-human embryos. Sen. Frist's bill was denounced by Democrats, who called it a "know-nothing" approach that would stifle science; it was also denounced by prominent Republicans, who bought into the inflated medical claims of researchers that cloning could lead to cures for cancer, Alzheimer's, and Parkinson's. Sen. Strom Thurmond (R-S.C.), who has a daughter with diabetes, and Sen. Connie Mack (R-Fla.), who has been treated for melanoma, both expressed fear that an outright ban would impede medical progress. Sen. Mack noted there had been no hearings on the bill and said he worried about the legislation's possible "unintended effects."

Last week, Sen. Frist, a surgeon and the only medical doctor in the Senate, watched his bill bog down. Since he lacks the 60 votes needed to shut off a filibuster and move his measure forward, the cloning legislation is stuck in political limbo. That leaves many scientists to be governed only by their own consciences when it comes to cloning.

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In much the same way, the science of cloning has proven more complicated than it first seemed. Even scientists in closely related fields find themselves asking questions about the implications of creating copies of people. "What is a clone?" asks Mike Miller, a plastic surgeon and researcher in the emerging field of tissue engineering. On Dr. Miller's desk at the M.D. Anderson Cancer Center in Houston are piles of articles from scientific and medical journals-the walls of his cramped office are lined with magazines, journals, and textbooks that don't provide that answer.

On a February morning, he's in between operations. He helped to rebuild a cancer patient's face; later he'll work on the chest cavity of another survivor. Dr. Miller leans forward, gesturing with his arms for emphasis: "If you take a cell from my mouth, and make a clone of me, is that clone still me? Is it mine? Can I do with it what I will?"

These ethical questions are much easier when dealing with animals. Dr. Miller and his fellow researchers have their own miracle sheep. The team is developing new ways to build tissues-bones and skin and cartilage and even fat cells-to replace tissues lost to damage or disease.

Some of the most promising work being done involves developing polymer molds for growing new bones. Mandibles, for example, are often lost to mouth cancers, and traditional bone reconstructions have proven unsatisfactory replacements. A mold for a new mandible was attached to a sheep's hip last year and tied to blood vessels there. New bone cells formed that new mandible, while in time the polymers dissolved. Within a few months, they had grown a properly shaped, fully functional replacement.

But Dr. Miller finds himself increasingly distracted these days by that other celebrity sheep: Dolly, known worldwide as the Scottish clone.

"This is going to be a battleground in coming years," he predicts. "We're seeing a powerful new technology being introduced into a society that no longer has the tools to decide between right and wrong." For every bioengineering challenge that she answers, he says, Dolly raises dozens of ethical questions.

What if it proves possible to create a clone that would grow only into a specific organ-a liver, say, or a leg? What if (as some experts predict) it becomes possible to make a clone without a specific organ-namely, the forebrain? Is that brainless clone a person? Or is it a living organ farm, devoid of consciousness and ethical baggage?

It's clear that science is rapidly outpacing society's ability to answer such questions, Dr. Miller says. With researchers left unfettered-there is only President Clinton's call for a voluntary ban on creating new copies of existing human beings-can they be trusted to make responsible decisions until legislation is ironed out?

"Doctors are fallen people, too," says Dr. Gene Rudd of the Christian Medical and Dental Society. Adds Dr. Miller, "Abortion is one indication of the value placed on human life by a significant portion of the medical community. I'd be hesitant to leave the issue of cloning in their hands alone."

An examination of the dubious history of cloning shows that researchers in the field are an eccentric bunch.

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