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Researchers Astounded … Fiction Becomes True and Dreaded Possibilities
Are Raised.” So went the headlines in Sunday’s New York Times about
Dr. Ian Wilmut, the embryologist in Edinburgh who has made history by
creating a lamb from the DNA of an adult sheep. The research, performed at
the Roslin Institute in Edinburgh, was sponsored by a drug company, PPL
Dr. Wilmut says the primary purpose of the cloning is to advance the
development of drug therapies to combat certain life-threatening human
diseases. Other scientists, especially in the United States, appear to have
adopted a more apocalyptic view of the news. “It basically means there are
no limits,” Dr. Lee Silver, a biologist at Princeton University, told the
New York Times. “It means all of science fiction is true.” Dr. Ronald
Munson, a medical ethicist at the University of Missouri, said, “This
technology is not, in principle, policeable.” Munson even speculated
about the possibility of cloning the dead.
Are such scenarios remotely possible? And if drug treatment is the main
priority, how soon will we see animal clone-based drugs on the market?
Salon spoke with Wilmut by telephone from his home in Edinburgh.
Science fiction. Cloning the dead. A technology out of control. What do
you make of such reactions to your work?
I think they’re over the top. The point is that what we thought happens in
all life is that you have a single fertilized egg and as it divides, it
progressively differentiates and you get brain and muscle and all of the
different kinds of cells that we have, People assumed until now that this
was an irreversible process. And what we have shown is that it’s not. Now
people will have to think in slightly different ways about the mechanisms
that control these changes — for example, about what happens when things go
wrong and you get a cancer instead of a normal development. So it is going
to open people’s eyes a lot in terms of biology.
And does it mean that cloning humans is possible?
We don’t know. It is quite likely that it is possible, yes. But what we’ve
said all along — speaking for both the (Roslin) Institute and the PPL
staff — is that we would find it ethically unacceptable to think of doing
that. We can’t think of a reason to do it. If there was a reason to copy a
human being, we would do it, but there isn’t.
Is the idea of cloning the dead totally fanciful?
Still, even if you can’t clone the dead and you see no reason to clone
the living, the genie is out of the bottle, so to speak. Others might find
reasons for human cloning, and they may not have the same standard of
ethics as you.
That does worry me, both in principle and in detail. It worries me in
detail because the successes we have at present are of such low efficiency
that it would really be quite appalling to think of doing that with people.
I would feel desperately sorry for the women and the children that were
Why? Because the clone could turn out to be some kind of monster?
It’s possible. Perhaps you don’t know that in the first experiment that we
reported, five lambs were born alive and three of them died quickly. There
was nothing monstrous, they just simply died. That in itself is very
distressing if you think of a mother who carries a child and it dies within
a few days of birth.
Your main goal, you have said, is to develop health-related products
from animal clones. In what areas, specifically?
Hemophilia. With animals, you could make the clotting factors which are
missing. It could also be beneficial for cystic fibrosis.
What’s the difference between using animal clones and other kinds of
Speed and efficiency. You could take cells from an animal, grow them in the
laboratory and make very precise genetic changes — it’s called gene
targeting — which you insert in the cloned offspring. So, for example, you
put into the cells of the offspring DNA sequences which would say, “Don’t
make this particular milk protein, but instead make clotting factor 8,”
which is needed for hemophilia. You can do that now, but by using a much
more primitive technique. Cloning and gene targeting requires fewer
animals. It will be quicker, which means new health products will come on
line more quickly.
There’s another major advantage. Presuming this technique with sheep will
successfully extend to cattle and then to pigs, it will speed
xeno-transplantation — using organs from pigs to treat human patients.
That can be done now, but what happens now is that you put a human protein
into the pig organ which kind of damps down the immune response in the
transplant patient. Now with gene targeting, we can do that, but we can
also change the surface of the cells, so that they would be less
antigenic when the pig organ is put into a human patient — which makes it
more likely that organ transplantation will work.
So, instead of waiting for a human donor, we’ll be seeing many more
animal organ-to-human transplants.
Yes, with pig organs in particular.
And who would be helped the most?
Well, there is a need for more hearts and more
kidneys. At present people die before human hearts can be made available to
There have been attempts to use baboon transplants in
Yes, but people feel it’s more acceptable to think of using pigs because
baboons seem so much more –
That’s right. Aware of their environment.
With animal cloning research, will it be possible to go in and fix
genetic defects in humans? For example, there are already tests for a
predisposition to breast cancer.
I think that is so far away that it’s not really credible. I mean you’re
quite right theoretically. But the efficiencies we have at the present time
and our understanding are so naive and primitive that you wouldn’t
contemplate doing it. I think we could contribute in a smaller way to
certain genetic diseases — breast cancer is not one that I’ve thought of
– but, for example, with cystic fibrosis. It has been suggested that we
study the role of the gene which is defective in people who suffer from
cystic fibrosis with the hope that better therapies can be developed. We
could also provide model test animals in which methods of gene therapy can
Which is being done with mice.
Yes, but mice are so different and so small that experimentation is very
difficult. Sheep would be much more appropriate.
Do you see a therapy for cystic fibrosis based on animal clones in your
Yes. I’m 52, I reckon I’ve got 20 years. I’m fairly comfortable predicting
we’ll see something in that time period.
In addition to drug therapy for humans, your research has major
implications for animals.
Yes, it may open a whole range of things we can’t imagine at the present
time. Remember, we only know about what, 5 or 10 percent of the animal
genes? But there is a particular project which is of immediate relevance in
Britain concerning the disease scrapie.
Mad Cow Disease?
That’s right. What people believe is that the agent which causes scrapie in
sheep causes BSE (Bovine Spongiform Encephalitis) in cows and some of the
CJD (Creuzfeld-Jacob Disease) in humans. It is believed to start with a
particular gene in sheep. Now what if we could modify that gene; could we
make sheep that are resistant to scrapie? That’s very important for sheep,
but also for BSE and CJD in humans.
Twenty years or so.
There is also talk of “supercows” producing enormous quantities of milk.
Could it be made cholesterol-free, by the way?
There are all sorts of questions like that. The answer to them is, we don’t
know. One thing I would say is that history shows that people are very bad
at predicting the way that technology will be used.
Any implications for world hunger?
Not immediately. But if we can maybe make animals resistant to some
diseases — to the tsetse fly, for example — it is quite possible that we
can contribute to a whole range of things.
You’ve been working on this project for 10 years. Did you ever ask
yourself, “Am I Dr. Frankenstein here? I know what I want to achieve but
am I contributing to something I don’t want to see happen?”
Of course. And we’ve tried to have this information released responsibly to
journalists like yourself, to ethicists, to people concerned with
legislation, because what we want is to stimulate an informed public
discussion of the way in which the techniques might be misused as well as
used and to ensure legislation was put in place to prevent misuse. But what
we’re also concerned with as well is that we don’t throw the baby out with
the bathwater. There are real potential benefits, and it’s important that
the concern to prevent misuse doesn’t also prevent the really useful
benefits that can be gained from this research.
What misuse are you most concerned with?
Any kind of manipulation with human embryos should be prohibited.
Are you concerned that your work will be stopped?
I have some concerns about it. I totally understand that people find this
sort of research offensive, and I respect their views. It’s also possible
for a minority to have very large influence. Now, if society says it
doesn’t want us to do this kind of research, well, that’s fine. But I think
it has to be an overall view made by an informed population.
Assuming it goes forward, when will we see the first concrete
I think there will be animals on the ground with interesting new products
in three years. I think we’ll come up with clotting factors, possibly in
cattle as well as in sheep. Of course there will be a long time for testing
the products before they go into commercial use. But there will be animals
that are able to secrete new proteins, different proteins, in three years.
Andrew Ross is Salon's executive vice president.More Andrew Ross.
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