'Dolly' Researcher Discusses Ethics of Human Cloning

Ian Wilmut, one of the scientists who cloned Dolly the sheep. Wilmut talks about cloning since Dolly, and the prospects for human cloning Guest: Ian Wilmut, ao-author of After Dolly: The Uses and Misuses of Human Cloning; professor of Reproductive Science; University of Edinburgh, Scotland

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Ten years ago, a fetching newborn lamb named Dolly made headlines and magazine covers around the world. She looked nothing like the ewe who gave birth to her, because Dolly was the first animal cloned from an adult cell.

Dolly went on to mate and give birth to six healthy lambs. Dolly was such an amazing accomplishment that when she died in 2003, many of the people, oh, around the world, felt that loss.

And today, of course, animal cloning is common. But Dolly's creation triggered fiery debates over human cloning that are still very much alive.

Ian Wilmut is an embryologist who was a member of the team at Scotland's Roslin Institute that cloned Dolly back in 1996. He is opposed to cloning human babies, but he says he's a passionate advocate of what he calls a restricted form of human cloning. And now he's taking a long considered look back, and forward as well. And he's put it all in a new book called, After Dolly: The Uses and Misuses of Human Cloning, which is co-authored with Roger Highfield.

Dr. Wilmut is professor of reproductive science at the University of Edinburgh in Scotland. And I'm happy and honored to have him here today at SCIENCE FRIDAY. Welcome...

Professor IAN WILMUT (Co-Author, After Dolly: The Uses and Misuses of Human Cloning; Professor of Reproductive Science, University of Edinburgh): Thank you for inviting me.

FLATOW: ...to the program. You're listening to TALK OF THE NATION: SCIENCE FRIDAY, from NPR News.

You've been listening to all this cloning talk. And 10 years ago, who would have thought, right?

Dr. WILMUT: I mean, I think it's amazing to think that it's already 10 years ago that she was born. And a lot has happened, but I think there's a lot still to come.

FLATOW: You know, I never asked a guest in 15 years of doing this, what's new? What's new, Dr. Wilmut?

Dr. WILMUT: I think there are a lot of things coming.

FLATOW: Yes.

Dr. WILMUT: Using this technology to try to understand human disease, to develop new treatments for them. Maybe, remembering this is a book which is looking a long way into the future, being able to use it to stop the birth of children with inherited disease.

I think there are a lot of things which I would encourage people to think about and to be optimistic about this technology and what it can offer.

FLATOW: What effect - and has the South Korean scandal had a lasting effect on the whole cloning issue?

Dr. WILMUT: Yes, it has. You would understand it if women were rather more cautious about offering to donate blastocysts for research and under these circumstances. And clearly, we'll have to be very careful to restore confidence in this.

I think you also have to feel sorry for patients, potential patients in Korea, who were promised treatments by Dr. Hwang and his colleagues. So it was a very sad event.

FLATOW: You - I mentioned at the beginning in the introduction that you believe in human cloning to a limited extent. Just define for us.

Dr. WILMUT: I think you have to ask very carefully what it is that you have in mind. The application that I've never supported is the idea of producing somebody who is a genetically identical twin of a person who is here. But I think it - to me, it would be acceptable to produce embryos from which you could get cells and to produce a baby in which you had corrected a genetic disease.

But it would not be a clone of somebody who was here already. It would be, if you like, a clone of an embryo. And it's being done for a different purpose. So it's very important all the time to say exactly what you have in mind.

FLATOW: Talking with Dr. Ian Wilmut, who, along with Roger Highfield, wrote a fascinating new book, After Dolly: The Uses and Misuses of Human Cloning. Our number, 1-800-989-8255.

Different countries are all sort of splitting up their ideas about this, are they not?

Dr. WILMUT: Yes, they certainly are. There's a great variety of different opinions. The United Kingdom, where I work, has some of the most liberal approaches to this. But it is very tightly regulated, which I think is entirely appropriate.

But there are many countries in which research with embryos of any kind is limited and nuclear transfer itself would be prohibited.

FLATOW: So is it possible that there might be rogue scientists out there who, themselves, would take on human cloning for a person?

Dr. WILMUT: I think is extraordinarily unlikely. The people who've talked about this in the past, it seems to me, have been advertising themselves but actually not doing anything. And I think this is a fear which is greatly exaggerated.

FLATOW: What kind of regulation do you think we need? International regulation?

Dr. WILMUT: I think that would be preferable. But given the different cultural histories, it may not be easy to achieve it. And so I'd be quite content to see each country preparing its own regulations. And it is, of course, very disappointing that this country hasn't done so.

FLATOW: Do you think it's inevitable that we're going to have a cloned person?

Dr. WILMUT: No.

FLATOW: No. Not like nuclear proliferation where there's going to be, you know, cloning proliferation somewhere.

Dr. WILMUT: It might happen. But I think it depends on how we behave. And I think that it is quite possible for societies - it is, of course, possible for societies to come to different conclusions.

But I think, you know, a perception that we should have is that there are disadvantages to most technologies. We're using electronic equipment to make this broadcast, which comes from essentially the same physics that blew up to a Japanese city sixty years ago.

What's key all the time is for societies to discuss things, to be informed about things - which clearly you make a great contribution to - and then to prepare regulations.

FLATOW: All right. We're going to take a short break and come back and talk lots more with Ian Wilmut, who, along with Roger Highfield, have written, After Dolly: The Uses and Misuses of Human Cloning.

We'll take your calls, 1-800-989-8255. So stay with us. We'll be right back after this short break.

(Soundbite of music)

I'm Ira Flatow. This is TALK OF THE NATION: SCIENCE FRIDAY, from NPR News.

(Soundbite of music)

You're listening to TALK OF THE NATION: SCIENCE FRIDAY. I'm Ira Flatow. We're talking about human cloning with my guest, Ian Wilmut, co-author of, After Dolly, The Uses and Misuses of Human Cloning, co-author with Roger Highfield.

Our number is 1-800-989-8255.

Do you think there is a - there is a concerted effort to mischaracterize what human cloning is? And I want to just bring this up for - I was at a conference a couple years ago. We were talking about human embryonic research. And we described the blastocyst. And I know you have a whole chapter in here that says, is a blastocyst a person? And we talked about the ball of cells.

And a delegate from the United Nations happened to be in the audience. And he came up and said, you know, in the last three minutes I learned more about human cloning, the truth about it, than I learned in 30 years as being a delegate to the UN. It almost sounded to me like they were stabbing babies to get cells out of them.

Dr. WILMUT: Yes, you described this as being a sort of deliberate misleading. And I'm not sure if I would describe it like that, but I'm sure there is a great ignorance about this. And this was one of the reasons for writing the book, to explain exactly what is involved, the stage of developments of embryo from which we take the cells, and to try to lift people's eyes to a greater horizon as to what can be achieved by research in this area. That was our aim.

FLATOW: Has it been oversold? You know, we talk about genetic engineering. We haven't seen a whole lot from that yet.

Dr. WILMUT: I think in the short-term, perhaps it has. There are different time scales on there. People doing research have to be optimists to follow that way of life. And it may be that inadvertently we do oversell things.

But in the long run, no, I don't think it's been oversold. There'll be a lot of things come from this area of research.

FLATOW: 1-800-989-8255. Clair(ph) in St. Louis. Hi, Clair.

CLAIR (Caller): How are you?

FLATOW: Go ahead.

CLAIR: There's been a case in the United States, a deaf couple wanted to have a deaf child, consulted with a doctor, and he told them yes, he could determine which of their embryos would be deaf, but he would not allow them to select for deafness. He'd allow to select against it, but not to allow to select for deafness.

And there's also research into cures for deafness. But I was wondering, with the talk of cloning and genetic treatment, how to handle that fine line between what is a disease that needs treating and what's simply a human variation.

Dr. WILMUT: I think that's an excellent question. And it's quite clear that there's a hugely difficult topic here, as to exactly where you would draw the line. I might use an example of a very unpleasant disease, and you're putting your finger on one which is not as difficult.

I think the way in which you deal with the issue is to try to have advice available from people who are not involved very directly in the particular case so that they would not stand to make any money from it. People - the researchers, like myself, would not stand to benefit from it and to have counselors provide the information.

These are subjective judgments. My own hunch is that I would probably have agreed with the doctor, that it would be more appropriate under these circumstances for a child to have the full range of opportunities. But I do understand why deaf parents might make a different choice.

FLATOW: Thank you for calling.

CLAIR: Thank you.

FLATOW: 1-800-989-8255. A chapter - a part of your book is called The Yuk Factor, and you talk about the very idea that some things are natural and others not raises more questions. And this is in reference to: Is it natural to work with human embryos.

Dr. WILMUT: And I think that what we, I think, go on to try to explain is that what happens each time that people enter a new area there is a response of that kind. And it happens to everybody, so that I might feel that about somebody working a different area of biology that I was not familiar with.

Often what then happens is that we can come to learn about it, to understand it, and to make a judgment as to what we are comfortable with. What almost worries me more than this initial response is that we very quickly come to take for granted something which has recently been developed, so that within my 60-year lifespan - if you think of, for example, organ transplantation, IVF, there was that sort of response when both of these, each of these, was introduced. But now we take it for granted.

The significance of this is that people don't understand that each of them came from years of basic research to create a new opportunity. There are, I believe, more opportunities still to come from biomedical research than all of the advances that we've had so far. And just think how many those there are.

But what we need is basic research to ask as many fundamental questions as we can, in order to maximize the number of opportunities that we have available. And I'm at least as afraid of the fact that people take for granted the opportunities each generation have and do not look forward to the future.

FLATOW: Mm-hmm. So how do you answer people who say, I just can't - I can't morally condone this.

Dr. WILMUT: I understand that to some people what we're suggesting is deeply offensive. And, of course, I accept that there are different points of view. In terms of working with embryos, I would wish to be sure that they understood exactly the stage of development that we would be working with. The embryo is smaller than a grain of sand. The micromanipulations we carry out with very sophisticated equipment and very skilled colleagues, of course, and that its weeks before the time when there would be the beginnings of a nervous system.

Now, to me personally, the key human characteristic is being conscious, aware, being able to form intellectual relationships with people, something, which, of course, would happen much, much later in the life of a developing person. But until the point when that begins to occur, which is sometime after the stage we would take cells, I think this is a potential person, but not yet a person. And that's the reason why, to me, it's an acceptable thing to do.

FLATOW: Scott(ph) in Jackson, Michigan. Hi, welcome to SCIENCE FRIDAY.

SCOTT (Caller): Hi. Um, the comment I'd like to make is that I think this cloning issue represents the same problem that you see in botany today, where by genetically engineering animals, you get the same problem you have with the plants. That you can introduce genetic material into a living organism which still has the capability of reproducing itself in the traditional way.

So just as you have, say, genetically engineered corn, cross-pollinating, you know, traditional corn, you know, and thereby, you know, polluting that corn with, say, genetic material from a shrimp, say, you could create a sheep, for instance, that has a pigment gene from, oh, from a plant, for instance. And you know, okay, great, you know. We get a sheep that, you know, grows a particular new color of wool, you know. But then that sheep can still reproduce in the traditional way with other sheep.

And so, suddenly, how did this gene from, say, a maple tree or something, you know, get into, you know, the genetic code of sheep, you know? So I think that that's - I think something that should be considered, that this genetic engineering of animals, you know, is the same - you know, represents the same problem of genetic pollution essentially. That, you know, you're going to get -it's a way for genetic material to, I guess, jump across the species barrier, you know?

FLATOW: Yeah, that's interesting. Let Dr. Wilmut answer that.

Dr. WILMUT: Yeah, let me make a couple of points. It is actually easier to identify and recover animals which have been genetically modified, if you really want to, than it is to go fetch back all of the maize plants that are scattered around the Midwest. It is a totally different of magnitude, as it's quite feasible.

But let me also suggest to you that people wouldn't actually be interested in that sort of comparatively trivial approach. Let's consider instead that it is possible to change cows so that they could not be susceptible to Mad Cow Disease. It may be possible to change cows so that they would be resistant to foot and mouth disease. Now, I would suggest to you that those are two objectives which it is well worth considering not only for the benefits of the people who may ultimately consume milk and meat from them, but also for the animals themselves.

FLATOW: All right. Thanks for calling, Scott.

SCOTT: Thanks.

FLATOW: Well, what about creating animals that grow our body parts? Hearts and things like that?

Dr. WILMUT: Yeah. One project, which a couple of groups certainly are still pursuing intensively, is the idea of changing pigs so that their organs can be used in people. And there is at least a handful of papers now showing that by making a particular genetic change, the organs are able to cope with blood from primates, not from human beings, but much better than anything in the past.

I think it's still some way away. There are a lot of challenges still to overcome, but it is something that people are still considering.

FLATOW: Could you change enough genes so that you're actually making a human heart inside the pig?

Dr. WILMUT: I think probably not. The logistics of that would be very difficult. But whether we can change enough pig genes to make it acceptable, I think that isn't clear either, because we don't understand the problem enough yet.

FLATOW: And then we talk about the problem of bringing other viruses and things (unintelligible).

Dr. WILMUT: Of course. That is the major issue, there would be a risk. And, of course, the context is different. Not - because what could happen in saving the life of one person is that you could put the entire human community at risk. And so the risk-benefit analysis is very different from when you're considering treatment of a particular person.

FLATOW: Is it Chi Chi(ph), in Portland? Hi there.

CHI CHI (Caller): Hi. I've got a quick question. Much less controversial. When do you think it'll be affordable, meaning, say, under $10,000, to clone a dog?

Dr. WILMUT: It's very difficult to know all of these things, I'm afraid. With the present technologies, as you know, the efficiency is very low and the cost very high. What we need for many of these applications is another jump in efficiency, which is comparable to that which enabled us to produce Dolly. Whether it will come from one more big step or from lots of little ones which will accumulate, it's impossible to know. And who knows what it will be or when it will come. I'm sorry not to be clearer than that.

FLATOW: Phil(ph) in Syracuse. Hi and welcome to SCIENCE FRIDAY.

PHIL (Caller): Yes, hi there. Let's see. I have a question about human cloning to produce a human being. And I guess my question is, why is that considered bad, unethical? It seems the politically correct thing to say nowadays is to say you're against human cloning for that.

FLATOW: So you could bring back your bother if he had died early, or a relative, somebody like that?

PHIL: Or anything like that. And, in fact, there are millions of clones out there today, and they're called identical twins. And I'm thinking, this - why not people who might want to have a clone of themselves. It'd be interesting I think for psychology to see how this person - identical twin who's maybe 20 or 30 years difference in age turns out. And so I'd like to ask your guest what is so ethically wrong with that? I see nothing wrong with it myself.

Dr. WILMUT: I think the fundamental difference you've already identified is that the twins would be of a different age. The two who are the same age actually I think do face some pressures as it is, because they're expected to be the same. And if they are the same age...

PHIL: But what's wrong with that, though?

Dr. WILMUT: And if they are the same age the consequences are not too great. But if they are different, I think it's imposing an expectation on the younger child.

PHIL: Parents (unintelligible) have expectations (unintelligible).

FLATOW: Well, what if you had a newborn and you just started the cloning right there and gave a twin immediately.

Dr. WILMUT: I mean, there the difference would be less. But I think you're right that parents do impose expectations. There will be many people listening to this who could tell you that that's deeply to be regretted and we should do everything we can to avoid amplifying those pressures. That's the reason why I don't like the idea.

FLATOW: All right, thanks for calling.

PHIL: You're welcome.

FLATOW: You're listening to TALK OF THE NATION: SCIENCE FRIDAY, from NPR News. I'm Ira Flatow talking with William - with William! - Ian Wilmut, who's author of After Dolly: The Uses and Misuses Human Cloning. It's getting late. I'm not speaking well anymore. Co-author with Roger Highfield. Our number, 1-800-989-8255.

Despite the U.K. support for stem cell research, that's not true throughout the European Union. And we mentioned - why is there such a difference between the Union's, the countries?

Dr. WILMUT: Well, I think the history is very different. If you pick out, for example, Germany, which has a very strong conservative group who oppose this, Catholic countries like Italy and Spain who oppose for different reasons, I think it just simply reflects the history. And I believe it's possible that over a period of time, a few decades, that these differences will become less and it will become possible to have a consistent legislation across all the countries.

FLATOW: You'd think the EU might want a David Beckham or a Wayne Rooney or somebody like that.

Dr. WILMUT: Oh, probably not. We might like some resilience I think. It's the other way around, yeah.

(Soundbite of laughter)

FLATOW: World Cup, we're speaking World Cup talk in case - Americans audiences don't know what you're talking about.

Dr. WILMUT: No, I understand, I understand.

FLATOW: We lost yesterday, so that's another story.

Dr. WILMUT: Yes, I saw that too, yes.

FLATOW: So where do you think the future is? Give me some steps to the future as you might map it out.

Dr. WILMUT: Well, I think that it would be really good to be able to increase the efficiency, to understand why the nuclear reprogram doesn't work more accurately. And that would then facilitate everything that we do.

But I think a fairly nearby - near thing is to be able to produce cells which have the characteristics of a patient with ALS, for example, which is a disease mentioned earlier in your program, which is a relentlessly progressive disease, which means people lose control of their limbs and ultimately die because they stop breathing. A very sad situation. It isn't understood.

Now, one problem is that the nerves which are affected are deep inside the body, so the researchers can't get access to them to study them. If we produce cells from cloned embryos from a person who had inherited the disease, it would be possible for the first time to study those cells as they begin to change for the very first time, to understand it and hopefully to develop a high throughput drug screening system which would enable us to assess thousands of drugs and hopefully identify something which could stabilize the position of patients. I think that's - it would be five, ten, fifteen years before that program would be completed. Probably ten years before it would be completed. But I think there is a realistic hope that that would bring forward the first drug to be able to stabilize the position of patients. And just imagine what that would mean to somebody.

FLATOW: Yeah. I also think once you get a breakthrough on one of these things, the opposition melts away.

Dr. WILMUT: I believe that. And we haven't got time before the end of your program to list the number of diseases which could be studied in that way. I mean they vary from some causes of sudden death because of heart failure, cancer, psychiatric disease, other neurodegenerative disease. There's a huge range of inherited diseases that we don't understand and for which there isn't a treatment.

FLATOW: Yeah, because we've already seen in this country opposition by some very conservative members of Congress...

Dr. WILMUT: Yes.

FLATOW: ...evaporating because they have relatives who suffer from some of these diseases.

Dr. WILMUT: Yes. Yes. And, you know, among your audience, there will be many people who already have one of these conditions or will have a family member or a work colleague who has these conditions. And because we're living longer we have more chance of succumbing to them and suffering that fate ourselves.

FLATOW: And once somebody shows the first pathway that it can happen, then others will want to jump in and they'll say why did you leave us out?

Dr. WILMUT: Yep. Yep. I believe this is true. I mean, I do respect the opinions of other people, of course. It's their right to have different views. But I think you're absolutely right. It will be come acceptable.

FLATOW: So where do you go from here, now?

Dr. WILMUT: Well, the other thing that we would like to do is to understand cloning, because there's another thing which I believe ultimately will be the greatest inheritance of the Dolly experiment, which is by understanding cloning I think we may be able to change cells of one type, somebody mentioned corpus cells earlier on, into another type, without making an embryo. And that would facilitate the idea of patient-specific cells.

And I think it's in that sort of way that by making biologists think differently the Dolly experiment has been most important of all.

FLATOW: You'd do away with the ethical problem.

Dr. WILMUT: Yes.

FLATOW: Yeah. Good luck to you.

Dr. WILMUT: Thank you.

FLATOW: And thank you for taking time to be with us. Dr. Ian Wilmut, professor of reproductive science at the University of Edinburgh, and co-author with Roger Highfield of After Dolly: The Uses and Misuses of Human Cloning. A very interesting book. I highly recommend it.

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