November 26, 2022

A DECADE OF DOLLY

 February 22 marked the tenth anniversary of the cloning of Dolly. Back in 1997, Ian Wilmut and his colleagues at Roslin Institute near Edinburgh announced that they had produced a lamb genetically identical to an adult ewe. This development ignited one of the biggest debates on the ethics of scientific research in decades. It also opened up exciting new possibilities for stem cell research and therapeutic cloning.

Curiously, the intensity of public interest caught scientists off guard, even the journal Nature which published Wilmut’s research. While the popular media instantly focused on the science fiction scenario of battalions of goosestepping Hitlers, scientists saw Dolly merely as an incremental step forward from a paper published the year before. The cloning debate has since moved on to the pros and cons of therapeutic cloning, ie, cloning and destroying embryos for their stem cells.

Nonetheless, reproductive cloning remains the most potent of the "yuk!" arguments against cloning embryos and no reputable scientist will be caught dead endorsing it. Normally the reason given is that reproductive cloning is bound to be unsafe for the child. Cloned animals, including Dolly, tend to be sickly and deformed.

However, it has also become clear, after ten years, that most scientists working in the field will back human reproductive cloning if it ever becomes safe. Many prominent bioethicists and lawyers have already constructed arguments to justify it. A manifesto released by the world’s scientific academies has failed to rule it out.

Nature acknowledged this in an editorial last week: "But as the science of epigenetics and of development inevitably progresses, those for whom cloning is the only means to bypass sterility or genetic disease, say, will increasingly demand its use. Unless there is some unknown fundamental biological obstacle, and given wholly positive ethical motivations, human reproductive cloning is an eventual certainty."