‘Is ‘cloning’ mad, bad and dangerous?’ – an argument revisited

Six years ago, to mark the then tenth anniversary of the announcement of the birth of the folkloric Dolly the sheep, and in the still reverberating wake of the South Korean cloning scandal, I practiced my fledgling/intermittent/debatable/wanton science communication skills with the penning of an article on the issue of ‘cloning.’ It being an anniversary with a ‘0’ on the end, combined with topical relevance, suggested I might be lucky enough to get it published. And I was thus very pleased when it was enthusiastically accepted by EMBO reports.

Although I made no claim that I was contributing an original argument (and the Byronic title was actually borrowed from Christopher Frayling), I had not among the reams of scientific and media coverage of the issue come across it elsewhere and figured it was worth making. Reading back through one’s own writings years later is often cringe-inducing. With this particular piece, I recall very little in the way of editorial adjustment (one sentence alteration was reversed when I communicated my concern at a subtle but significant change in meaning), so any stylistic ropiness is all mine. Satisfied at the time, I figuratively sat back with my hands behind my head and waited for feedback/comment/flames. And it all went pretty quiet. Guess it wasn’t a ‘contribution’ the debate needed.

But this week, stimulated by the news of the publication of superb scientific endeavour, I found myself reminded of it. So, I climbed into the online attic, recovered it, dusted off the virtual cobwebs, and re-read. And, if you’ll allow me, I am here going to reprise (some of) it.

There is/will be plenty of review, comment and prognostication on the Cell paper by Tachibana et al. So I will not here discuss the details; except to commend its authors, not only on some brilliant, arduous work, but their presentation of it. Also, it is worth speculating, on account of the fraudulent spanner that set back and further complicated the public’s relationship with this research field, on the exceptionally rigorous peer review it must have had to get through, further emphasising its quality*.

It’s a science paper in a science journal and is thus sober and unsensational. Yet, I find it striking that the word ‘cloning’ occurs only once, in reference to previous animal reproductive experiments:

‘However, despite numerous applications of SCNT for animal cloning, the nature of reprogramming oocyte factors and their mechanism of action remain largely unknown.’

That’s it. We are then immediately reminded, early in the Introduction, of the actual aim and purpose and importance of this work:

‘In humans, SCNT was envisioned as a means of generating personalized embryonic stem cells from patients’ somatic cells, which could be used to study disease mechanisms and ultimately for cell-based therapies.’

The first news report I heard on the radio included repeat use of the word ‘cloning’. The first news item I read was in Nature – a scientific journal, yes, but also a science magazine. The piece employs ‘clone’/’cloned’/’cloning’ @ 14 times. Now, don’t get me wrong; it is a good news piece, with well-written précis of the technique. Certainly far better than many of the newspapers. But does this word serve any purpose, other than to garner reader attention? (Err, what about the title of this, Lee?)

‘Cloning’ does not accurately describe what is going on here, does it? For one thing:

‘Moreover, we derived several human NT-ESC lines from these embryos and validated that their nuclear DNA is an exclusive match to parental somatic cells, whereas mitochondrial DNA originated almost exclusively from oocytes.’

The amount of mitochondrial DNA present in the oocyte is not insignificant (and is important for other reasons outlined in the final paragraph of the paper’s Discussion). That reads to me as describing a total genetic complement not possessed by any person. Over-pedantic? Well then, consider the liberal use of the term as applied to the triploid nuclear transfer ’embryos’ (I deliberately use inverted commas there also) reported two years ago. How can it apply when chromosomal DNA is not removed from the egg?

I appreciate the ‘accommodation’ necessary to render science accessible and understandable to a public that funds and relies on it. But I think we hammer a square peg into a round mental/cognitive pigeon-hole when we label this technology ‘cloning.’ Myth and science fiction have rendered it an instantly recognisable referent. But it sparks bolt-necked controversy (with which Byron does have indirect connection, he having been involved in the writing competition that yielded one of cinema’s most portrayed monster-mad scientist yarns; a controversy that even Branagh’s dreadful over-theatricality failed to quell).

Of the many arguments why actual human reproductive ‘cloning’ could/should not occur is the surely inescapable realisation that it would require trial… of the health and longevity of the resulting individuals. And how are they going to freely consent? Progression to a routine and problem-free process with animals would still be no guarantee of success. Am I missing something obvious here? The more reality-based ethical issue is that concerning the procurement of eggs. I’m with the Nature piece there.


* Update 30/5/13: Just caught up with the developments on this publication; I am now speculating on the potential PR damage, and watching with interest.


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