Human Cloning A Distinct Possibility

RECENTLY, the team that had cloned Dolly (the first large animal to be cloned) announced that they are working on human cloning. A few months back, the whole world and especially the scientific establishment was stunned by the claim of the first succesful human cloning in end December, last year.  The claim came from a rather obscure organisation called Clonaid. Brigitte Boisselier, an industrial chemist, claimed on behalf of the organisation that a thirty one year old American woman had given birth to the first cloned human baby “at a secret location outside the United States”. She refused to divulge any further details and only identified the baby as a female by the name of Eve. The baby was claimed to be an exact replica of its mother and formed by the fusion of genetic material taken from the mother’s skin cell and her ovum (egg cell). If true, that would make the baby her mother’s child as well as her twin!


Clonaid however did promise that they would soon provide proof that such a cloned baby had indeed been born. The announcement drew skepticism from a host of experts who questioned whether Boisselier’s company, Clonaid, has the know-how to pull off the scientifically challenging feat. Within less than a week, however, with no proof forthcoming, it started becoming clear that the announcement was actually a gigantic and elaborate hoax


Boisselier is a leading member of the Raelian religion, which was formed by a French journalist and race car driver, Claude Vorilhon, after he claimed to have been visited by extraterrestrials in 1973. Clonaid was started in the Bahamas in 1997 after Scottish scientists cloned Dolly the sheep. Its officials have declined to disclose where its offices are located.


Clonaid claims that they used knowledge that was supplied by space aliens. It is their belief that the earth was colonised by humans who were clones left behind by extraterrestrial beings who had visited the earth from a distant part of the galaxy. They further claim that their plans are eventually to perpetuate individuals by creating adult clones and downloading memories and personality into the new, identical bodies. In other words create immortal beings whose bodies are regularly replaced by clones. The idea sounds straight from a science fiction novel, and has had scientists across the globe denouncing such claims as figments of imagination.


Now it is clear that the initial claim was actually a fraud. But through it, Brigitte Boisselier (who is supposed to have led the team of scientists who performed the “feat”) and Clonaid acquired near celebrity status as she flew across the world and lectured about her “feat”. What this hoax has, however achieved, is to focus once again on the debate on the ethics and utility of human cloning. While Clonaid’s claim was obviously a hoax, it cannot be disputed that the technology for human cloning, however imperfect, is already available. Let us look at what human cloning really involves.




Cloning is the production of one or more individual plants or animals that are genetically identical to another plant or animal. Nature itself is the greatest cloning agent. In about one of every 75 human conceptions, the fertilized ovum splits for some unknown reason and produces (identical) twins who have an identical genetic make-up. Two very different procedures have been referred to as “cloning”—embryo cloning and Adult DNA. cloning.


Embryo Cloning might more accurately be called “artificial twinning”, because it simulates the mechanism by which twins naturally develop. Cloning of embryos has been used in animal breeding since the late 1980s, and in mice experiments since the late 1970s. The procedure split a single fertilized ovum into two or more clones, each of which is then implanted into the wombs of receptive females. The methods used have been understood for many years and actually used to clone embryos in cattle and sheep.


Human embryo cloning starts with a standard in vitro fertilization procedure — known in common language as the “test-tube baby” technology. Sperm and an egg cell are mixed together on a glass dish. After conception, the fertilized egg is allowed to develop into a hollow mass of cells by dividing first into two cells, then four, then eight, and so on. This mass of cell is divided into individual cells which are deposited on individual dishes, where they are allowed to divide and develop. After a stage each of these are implanted into the wombs of separate females. Theoretically it is possible to obtain 32 separate cells from a single fertilised egg by this technique. However this has never been tried and laboratory experiments have dealt only with defective eggs and the process has been aborted after a few days. But the experiments have established that this manner of cloning is possible. A team of Australian doctors have admitted that they “accidentally” used this process to actually produce twins while producing a test-tube baby. Thus a kind of cloning technology has been known to work for quite some time, though no one admits that it has been done intentionally to produce separate individuals.



Cloning using Adult DNA is more complex and  involves a larger number of ethical issues. In embryo cloning the resultant “clones” have genetic material from both parents. In Adult DNA techniques, the “clones” have genetic material from only one parent. This was assumed to be impossible in all mammals, until it was achieved in  UK, by Dr Ian Wilmut of the Roslin Institute in Roslin, Scotland with the successful production of Dolly in 1997. Dolly was the first large cloned animal using DNA from another adult.  Since Dolly’s conception, the Institute has successfully cloned other sheeps of different breeds. The technique that they developed can probably be applied to other domesticated mammals and conceivably even to humans.


With the exception of the sperm and egg, every cell in the body contains all  the genetic material in its DNA to theoretically create an exact clone of the original body. In “Dolly’s” case, a cell was taken from breast tissue of a mature 6 year old sheep and fused with a sheep ovum (egg) which had had its nucleus (with all the DNA material) removed. The “fertilized” cell was then stimulated with an electric pulse. Out of 277 cell fusions, only 29 began to divide. These were all implanted in ewes. 13 became pregnant but only one lamb, Dolly, was born. It remains to be seen whether “Dolly” is fertile. Some cloned frogs are infertile. Also, cells seem to have an internal clock that causes them to die off after a normal life. Since Dolly was conceived from a 6 year old cell, her life expectancy may be reduced.  But the important point is that once Dolly became a possibility, human cloning was always on the cards.


While it is true that failure rates were very high when trying to make Dolly, they will get lower. And there might not be a shortage of human eggs to use for cloning in future, if the ideas of the likes of Clonaid become a reality. In theory, it is possible to “harvest” hundreds of thousands of eggs from a foetal ovary. In cloning by DNA transfer technology, the egg does not provide any genetic material and so the donor hardly matters.


Conceivably, there would be no shortage of surrogate wombs, since clones are likely to be carried by the  women who want them as their own children.




Some scientists believe that human embryo cloning and related research can have certain positive results. It might produce greater understanding of the causes of miscarriages, and might generate new, effective contraceptives that exhibit very few side effects. Experience gained in cloning may add to our understanding of genetics and lead to the creation of animals organs which have been genetically altered so that they can be  transplanted to humans. The rapid growth of the human fertilised egg is similar to the rate at which cancer cells propagate. Cancer researchers believe that if a method is found to stop the division of a human ovum then a technique for terminating the growth of cancerous cells might be found. Treatments for damage to the brain or nervous system might be possible due to cloning.


Parents who are known to be at risk of passing a genetic defect to a child could make use of  cloning. A fertilized ovum could be cloned, and the duplicate tested for the disease or disorder. If the clone was free of genetic defects, then the other clone would be as well. The latter could be implanted in the woman and allowed to mature to term. In conventional in vitro fertilization, doctors attempt to start with many ovums, fertilize each with sperm and implant all of them in the woman’s womb in the hope that one will result in pregnancy. But some women can only supply a single egg.


Through the use of embryo cloning, that egg might be divisible into, say, 8 zygotes for implanting. The chance of those women becoming pregnant more quickly would be much greater. A couple in which the husband is completely sterile could use adult DNA cloning to produce a child. An ovum from the woman would be coupled with a cell from the man’s body—both would thus contribute to the child.


At the same time doubts have been expressed about the technology due to a number of potential misuses. The genetic screening test described above could also be used to eliminate zygotes of a particular gender, without requiring a later abortion  A country might finance a programme similar to that of Nazi Germany whereby humans were bred to maximize certain traits.  Once the “perfect human” was developed, embryo cloning could be used to replicate that individual and conceivably produce unlimited numbers of clones. The same approach could be used to create a genetic underclass for exploitation: e.g. individuals with sub-normal intelligence and above normal strength.


Dolly was conceived using an ewe’s egg and a cell from another ewe’s body.  It is noteworthy that no semen from a ram was involved. If the technique were perfected in humans, and came into general usage, then there would be no genetic need for men. All of the human males could be allowed to die off.  Large scale cloning could deplete genetic diversity. And it is diversity that drives evolution and prevents an entire species from disappearing because of susceptibility to a disease. Some people have expressed concern about the effects that cloning would have on  relationships. For example, a child born of an adult DNA cloning from his father would be, in effect, a delayed twin of one of his parents.




Cloning has always caught the public imagination. We now have the technology to take a few cells from a modern day Einstein, or a musical genius or a child prodigy and to create hundreds of babies which have exactly the same genes. An  attractive proposition indeed for a powerful megalomaniac,  who fancies the idea of  populating the world with a new race of genetically “superior” people. But what people fail to understand is that cloning will not produce identical individuals—at least not with the level of technology we have today. The individual clones would all have different wombs to develop in and different environments in which they would grow up in after birth. So even with the same genes, they would end up with entirely different characteristics.


The lesson of history is that whatever is possible will be tried somewhere by someone at some time—but this is no excuse for sitting back. Those who split the atom were excited about the immense potential of the process in providing an almost unlimited energy source for mankind. They certainly did not bargain for the nuclear holocaust at Hiroshima and the ensuing nuclear arms race. The choice is ours. We cannot ignore gene technology, nor should we condemn all of it. But if we do not control gene technology today, it may well redesign us by tomorrow.