Prophecy isn't Don Wolf's specialty. He's a staff scientist at the Oregon Regional Primate Research Center who spends his time trying to clone a rhesus monkey. But two weeks ago, he sounded as though he had an inside track on the future.
"Can we clone humans?" he asked, rhetorically, during a Nov. 13 lecture at Oregon State University. "It's essentially on the cusp. It's very close to being a reality, if it's not already a reality."
He was right; it had already happened, sort of.
On Nov. 25, Advanced Cell Technology, a Massachusetts company, announced it had cloned human embryos earlier this year.
Wolf, who is considered to have a good shot at actually cloning a non-human primate, wasn't available for comment. But he made it clear in Corvallis that he's troubled by where biotech companies such as ACT are taking cloning.
"The Wild West" is what Wolf calls the prevalent culture in assisted reproductive technology, as the field is broadly known. Few laws and lax enforcement are leading researchers into a realm where the scientists with the least handle on cloning's ethical quagmires will force other scientists into a death match to see who can clone human life first.
Being first means investment money for your company, scads of free publicity and, maybe, a fast track to a Nobel Prize.
The race is even more troubling because while the media has hyped the ACT news, there are, as Wolf pointed out, serious problems with cloning techniques (think mangled cell structures). That didn't quite happen with Dolly the sheep in 1996 or Wolf's own nearly cloned rhesus monkeys in 1997, but it's happened since with sheep, mice and cattle.
As Wolf told his audience of science faculty and students, technical glitches make it scientifically insupportable to apply the techniques to human genetic material.
Even ACT's headline-producing outcomes were largely failures. The privately held company had hoped to clone human embryos and harvest them for stem cells. During 2001, ACT worked with 41 human eggs and tried three separate cloning methods. But only a few of the cloned human cells divided; those that did soon died. Still, it established that cloning is feasible, however momentarily, on a sub-embryo level.
That's why the federal government, Wolf believes, needs to get serious about regulation.
"If they outlawed reproductive cloning, it would be a huge step in the right direction," he said. He also called for a ban on cloning primordial human cells, which are necessary to create stem cells and may hold the genetic keys to making bad cells good, offering hope for a cure to ailments such as Parkinson's disease.
Wait a minute, says U.S. Rep. Earl Blumenauer.
The Portland Democrat, whose district includes Oregon Health & Science University, says a race to legislate poses pitfalls of its own. He points to President Bush's decision earlier this year to limit federally funded research on stem cells derived from human embryos to 60 "lines" of stem cells already in existence. Turns out fewer than 12 of those lines are useful, truncating the breadth of research the scientific world was drooling over. Scientists pined for loads of genetically dissimilar stem-cell lines. Not only are they not getting that, but some of the 12 lines are locked up in private hands.
That experience has Blumenauer urging caution. "I don't think it's the best approach to rush in and pass legislation that we'll feel is extreme down the road," he says, "when we're still in the middle of trying to sort it out."
: In last week's story about unemployed software engineer Chris Gray ("Lost in the Silicon Forest"), we mistakenly referred to the IWW as the
, rather than Industrial, Workers of the World.
regrets the error (and the redundancy).