Professor Darren Griffin from the School of Biosciences at the University of Kent, who is one of the UK's most important authorities on cloning, discusses this issue with host John Harrison.
Professor Griffin explains that this is a technical advance rather than being a new cloning method. "The ‘Dolly the Sheep' cloning method has largely been successful in cloning all sorts of mammals; pigs, horses, cats, dogs, and of course sheep, but until recently the received wisdom was that it wouldn't work very well in primates. I don't think that they [Chinese scientists] did anything particularly different other than try various methods from the same technique until they very impressively got it right….Generally speaking, when we talk about cloning, we picture the ‘Dolly The Sheep' approach, which involves taking the nucleus from a committed cell and implanting that into an egg or a very early embryo in the hope that the embryo will divide and form a fetus."
"In this case, the thing that they got to work was by using embryonic cells, cells from a fetus, that resulted in the two monkeys we have seen all over the newspapers. There were also a couple of attempts using adult monkey cells, but they didn't last more than a couple of days. So it's still relatively early days if this work is to continue."
But the Chinese team was only successful after 78 failed attempts. "This is the thing, when the question is whether or not we should be cloning humans" professor Griffin says. "On the one hand, these are primates and we ourselves are primates, thus technically you might argue that this is a step towards the right approach, but with humans you have of course all sorts of other issues, such as the fact that there were so many failures. One of the things you don't really want to do is to experiment and essentially produce babies which may be severely defective or last no more than a couple of days just to prove a point. It is quite dangerous. Another issue is that it is probably a little bit pointless. There would probably be a market for this, if you put out on the internet: ‘Would you like to be cloned.' I am sure there would be a lot of takers who would pay an awful lot of money to get themselves cloned. But realistically, what would the end result be? Someone who was a little bit like the person from whom they were cloned in the first place." Professor Griffin points out that even if you produce identical clones, which are the same genetically, unless they were brought up in the same environment and in the same point in history it is unlikely that they will be very similar at all. "Even identical twins, as far as we know, are somewhat different to one another."
The SCNT technique may have uses as far as further research into producing cloned primates for the testing of drugs and medical treatments, in cases where only research on primates will do. "Aids research was greatly aided through the study of macaques, cognitive aging is another example, and in both these cases it is thought that you have to have a primate model….If you have a group of animals with the same genetic background and then you apply an intervention such as a drug, then you know for a fact that what happens, the effect, is due to your intervention and not due to differences in the natural population of monkeys that you look at. So, the argument is that you would have to use fewer monkeys because your statistics will be more robust."
As Professor Griffin points out, any scientific advance that can do good can also cause harm. "Within our own States we have regulatory bodies,…but there are many other things that are far more likely and far more dangerous than cloning."
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