SCIENCE TRIBUNE Thursday, December 6, 2001, Chandigarh, India

Fact and fiction about human cloning
Amar Chandel
ost scientific inventions vie desperately for public attention and awareness. Laymen usually give them a wide berth. But there are exceptions. Human cloning has almost compensated for apathy shown towards almost all advances in other fields put together. It has caused a worldwide storm, sucking in every one from religious leaders to politicians to ethicists.

Instant warmth in coldest conditions
arm up your car, truck or RV with this safe and efficient heat source. Pre-game or pre-concert tailgates will be warmer when you plug this 200 watt halogen heater into your vehicle’s cigarette lighter or other 12-volt power source.

  • Antidote for anthrax
  • The beat goes on

J. P. Garg tests your IQ



Fact and fiction about human cloning
Amar Chandel

Human embryo
Human embryo
Nuclear transfer
Nuclear transfer

Most scientific inventions vie desperately for public attention and awareness. Laymen usually give them a wide berth. But there are exceptions. Human cloning has almost compensated for apathy shown towards almost all advances in other fields put together. It has caused a worldwide storm, sucking in every one from religious leaders to politicians to ethicists. That is not forgetting the doomsayers, who are so high on the comic books they read in their childhood that they are certain that masked men in dim-lit laboratories are on the verge of creating mirror images of real persons or flesh-and-blood robots with little brains who will be condemned to be beasts of burden.

In theory, it is possible to create a new kind of human being asexually in the lab, with no father or mother in the traditional sense. In practice, nothing could be farther from the truth. One has to remove the smokescreen of publicity to get at the reality. Facts defy the fantastic claims made by some scientists and even more wild apprehensions raised by others.

But first let us go to the eye of this storm. The controversy was triggered by the announcement made by the Advanced Cell Technology, a private company based in Worcester, Massachusetts (USA), on November 25 that it had succeeded in cloning human embryo for the first time, growing it to six cells, before it quit developing. According to Dr Jose Cibelli, vice-president of research at Advanced Cell Technology, the aim of the company was to cull stem cells from a cloned embryo, master cells that could then be grown into custom medical treatment for patients. If cultured with special proteins, scientists say the cells could evolve into any of the body’s 220 or so cell types, including heart, muscle, liver, brain and other tissue.

What remained unsaid was that this first embryo was far too small to generate stem cells. To be a viable source of stem cells a human embryo would have to develop to the blastocyst stage — a mass of 100-150 cells from which stem cells can be recovered. Nor was it reported that all the embryos that it created had died.

The aim of the company was clear. If ever human cloning became a reality, the Advanced Cell Technology people could claim that "we started it all". As if to prove that a race against time was on to claim credit, another company announced almost simultaneously that it had also cloned human embryos, but in unpublished research. The company, Clonaid, said it hoped to eventually create fully-developed human clones.

The world was intrigued and exercised. The Washington D.C.-based National Right to Life Committee was livid. ``This corporation is creating human embryos for the sole purpose of killing them and harvesting their cells,’’ said the group’s legislative director Douglas Johnson. ``Unless Congress acts quickly, this corporation and others will be opening human embryo farms.’’

The common man just does not know the difference between therapeutic cloning, which is the attempt to create cell lines for use in treating diseases, and reproductive human cloning, which is making actual copies of human beings, as was done in the case of Dolly the sheep. While some progress - rather insignificant one - has been made in the case of former, the latter is still a pipedream. In plain English, it is something like a person carving out a wheel and saying that he is on the way to making a rocket!

Some scientists are of the view that what has been going on at Worcester is no cloning at all. They claim that eggs can divide a few times without making any use of their genes. So the fact that a few eggs divided a few times does not at all mean that the goal of the experiment to add a new set of functioning genes to an egg was even close.

Glenn McGee, a University of Pennsylvania bioethicist who resigned from Advanced Cell Technology’s ethics advisory board, called the announcement ``nothing but hype.’’ He said the company’s report lacked any significant details, including what cells company scientists actually grew from the cloned embryo. ``They are doing science by press release,’’ he said.

Dr Ronald M. Green, a Dartmouth professor who heads the company’s ethics board, says he prefers not even referring to the cells as embryos. He would like to call them "cleaving eggs". British scientist Ian Wilmut, who created the first cloned adult mammal, Dolly, called it just a "yard-stone", and certainly not a "milestone" in medical research.

Even if it is a genuine case of cloning, the technique is hardly groundbreaking because its methods had already been used in animals.

The researchers started with a donated female egg cell. They removed its nucleus and replaced it with a cumulus cell, complete with its genetic DNA. Cumulus cells normally help nurture eggs as they develop. This technique can produce replacement cells only for a woman of childbearing age, since the injected DNA comes from a woman’s reproductive system.

However, the scientists have been experimenting with injecting adult skin cells into the eggs as well.

What must be remembered is that no experiment has yet yielded the coveted stem cells, the master cells that grow into all sorts of body tissues. The researchers added skin cells to 11 eggs; none divided even once. They added cumulus cells to eight eggs; three divided once or twice, the others not at all. Stem cells appear only after an embryo grows for about five days and, more important, forms a blastocyst, a sphere of cells with a ball of stem cells inside it. The Advanced Cell Technology embryos that were created by cloning were not even close to that developmental stage.

The process of developing a human clone is much harder than cloning animals first of all because of the very scarcity of human eggs. It took them a year to get 17. With cows it is routine to get 400 a day. Dr Cibelli claimed that if he had 200 to 300 human eggs to work with, he would have a 90 percent chance of creating a colony of stem cells that might fight human disease.

Moreover, all the work that is being is done is hit and trial without any rules or formulas. Even when there is success, it is unpredictable and nearly inexplicable. Like golf, cloning is considered a skill that involves exactly how the requisite tool is held and used. To that extent, it is an art as much as a science. That is one reason scientists think it will be a decade or two before this technology bears some fruit.

Then there is the cost factor as well. Producing a cloned dog itself could cost as much as $ 100,000. Genetic Savings and Clone, a Sam Francisco company, has funnelled $ 9 million towards reproducing a mutt named Missy. Hundreds of pet owners are already storing dog DNA, a process that costs about $1,000 if the dog’s still alive, $2,000 if the dog has just met an untimely end. In vitro fertilisation clinics will generally pay an egg donor $3,000 to $5,000, and Advanced Cell Technology took 71 eggs from seven women. Removing the eggs requires a serious medical procedure that can cause serious medical complications.

Scientists will almost certainly use fewer eggs if therapeutic cloning is used on people. But even if it required a mere 100 eggs, taken from 10 donors, the cost of simply paying the donors could easily reach $50,000. On top of that, there would be medical costs involved in procuring the egg. That means costs to treat one patient could conceivably soar above $100,000.

The US Congress is reportedly considering legislation that would either ban all types of cloning, or only reproductive cloning. Indeed there are very many moral, ethical and philosophical objections to reproductive cloning. Since the technique is not perfected, there are grave dangers in going ahead with it. Early human experiments can not only result in hundreds of clinical failures and miscarriages but can also lead to the birth of thousands of deformed offspring. Unforeseen health and genetics related problems my also erupt, against whom humanity may be totally helpless.

But as far as therapeutic cloning is concerned, potential benefits to the seriously ill are far too many to ignore. Larry Goldstein, a University of California, San Diego scientist whose stem cell research is primarily with mice, says therapeutic cloning offers an ethical and valuable means of generating cells genetically identical to a donor. Joe Panetta, president and chief executive officer of Biocom/San Diego says: "The objective of reproductive cloning is to create an entire human individual. Biocom believes that reproductive cloning should be prohibited at this time. However, therapeutic cloning, which aims to produce new therapies, should not be curtailed by excessive government regulations. "This is a matter of whether we should ban science."

One thing is certain. Whatever the lawmakers decide, the work will almost certainly continue, if not in the USA, then elsewhere. As Peter Mombaerts, a scientist at Rockefeller University in New York City, said in a recent paper on cloning in Science, "they have bitten the bullet now; we can’t go back".


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Antidote for anthrax

Amid growing fears of biological warfare, two discoveries could aid the development of antidotes to the deadly disease anthrax, says Nature news service.

William Dietrich and his colleagues at Harvard Medical School in Boston, Massachusetts, have pinpointed the gene that enables one strain of mice to resist the lethal anthrax toxin.

Released by the bacterium Bacillus anthracis, the toxin kills immune cells in the blood, causing severe shock and sometimes death. The resistance gene produces a protein, Kific, that may transport the toxin around the cell, thinks Dietrich.

Meanwhile, a second Harvard team is trying to stop anthrax getting into the cell at all. Seven copies of one of the toxin’s proteins assemble into a ring on a cell’s membrane to puncture it; enzyme then enters through this hole to wreak damage.

John Collier and his colleagues screened small protein fragments called peptides and found one that prevents entry through the pore. Rats that normally die within 90 minutes of toxin injection survived with no symptoms when given a dose of this peptide plug, the team reports.

Currently, anthrax mainly occurs in cattle, sheep and other animals in the developing world, where livestock vaccination is poor. A few humans catch it each year from infected animals or animal products; 20 per cent die within weeks. More rare, but far more fatal, is the anthrax transmitted through spores-hardly, dormant forms of the bacteria.

The option to deliver the disease in the form of these spores, and the speed with which it can kill, make anthrax a potential bioweapon.

Neither vaccines nor antibiotics are produced on a large scale that might be needed after bioweapon attack.


The beat goes on

A portable device developed by scientists in Massachusetts can keep hearts beating outside the body for nearly two days.

Waleed Hassanein and his colleagues at TransMedics of Woburn, Massachusetts, have developed a machine called Portable Organ Preservation System (or POPS), which keeps organs at normal body temperature and pumps blood through them continuously. A drip feeds a mixture of nutrients and electrolytes into the blood.

Under these conditions, hearts keep pumping at about 60 to 80 beats a minute without any external stimulation, a report in New Scientist said.

"The POPS system maintains organs in their normal functioning state — the heart continues to beat, the kidney makes urine and the liver makes bile," says Hassanein.The machine collects and removes these products, which can help surgeons evaluate an organ’s condition, he says.

Preliminary experiments suggest that the device also works for pancreases and lungs, he says. The team has carried out nearly 500 experiments on animal organs, and is planning tests with human organs.

The device could be useful, says Robert Higgins, a director of the United Network for Organ Sharing, based in Verginia, which coordinate organ transplants in the US. "It might also alleviate the pressure on transplant teams to procure organs and expedite them to the site of the recipient, often in the middle of the night." PTI


J. P. Garg tests your IQ

1. The Scottish scientist Alexander Grahm Bell is well known for his invention of telephone. But Bell was amply assisted by another scientist in making this invention. Can you name him? State the first sentence spoken by Grahm Bell on the telephone.

2. GMPCS is a service whereby a subscriber can communicate from any place on earth through a hand-held terminal. What is the full name of this service in which the subscriber has only one telephone number irrespective of his location on earth and which provides him an easy and flexible communication method?

3. This tree generally grows between heights of 3000 to 4000 metres above mean sea level. Its shining white bark comprises very fine layers of quality paper which can be easily pealed off. These were used by the ancient saints and sages for writing purposes. Which is this tree the bark and leaves of which are used for religious purposes?

4. How much time does a photon of light take to travel across a nucleus? How much across an electron? State only the order.

5. Cigarette smoke contains poisonous gases like hydrogen sulfide, hydrocyanic acid and carbon monoxide and carcinogens. Which dreaded disease is likely to be caused by inhaling this smoke for long time?

6. When we stand between mountains and speak loudly, we hear echoes. Which basic phenomenon accounts for this observation?

7. Sometimes a polymer is formed by the reaction of monomers and each step in the process results in the elimination of some easily removable molecule like water (for instance, terylene is manufactured by this process). What is this type of polymerisation called?

8. MIC is a colourless, highly volatile liquid having pungent odour. It is biologically very active and can produce irritation in the eyes even in small quantities. When administered in large quantities, it can replace oxygen in the lungs and can cause choking and even death. What is the full form of MIC?

9. Name the instrument used to help breathing in infantile (childhood) paralysis.

10. Which planet in the solar system undergoes extreme variations in temperature?



1. Thomas Watson; "Watson, Watson, come here, I need you." 2. Global Mobile Personal Communication by Satellite 3. Betula or bhoj pattar 4. 10-23 s; 10 24s 5. Cancer 6. Reflection of sound 7. Condensation polymerization 8. Methyl Isocyanate 9. Drinker’s Apparatus 10. Mercury (its temperature ranges from 90 K to 700 K)