Wilmut would back ban on human cloning Scientist who cloned sheep says cooling-off period would help

March 10, 1997|By Jonathan Bor | Jonathan Bor,SUN STAFF

The Scottish scientist who surprised the world by successfully cloning a sheep said yesterday that he would support at least a temporary moratorium on experiments involving human cells.

In Baltimore for a conference on biotechnology and animal health, Dr. Ian Wilmut said he could see no moral justification for producing identical people but felt the underlying technology could be used to reprogram human cells to reverse disease.

This, said Wilmut, might be the most important application to emerge from the technology that made Dolly, a white lamb cloned from the udder cell of a ewe. But he said such uses were many years off, and scientists could use a cooling-off period to work on applications such as the production of farm animals whose milk could be taken as pharmaceuticals.

At some point, a panel could decide if the moratorium should be lifted.

"You're not saying that in five or 7 1/2 years a change is going to take place," Wilmut said during a briefing at the Hyatt Regency Hotel, where the two-day conference begins today. "But what you are saying is that some group of people has to be persuaded that there is a use that is going to come from this research and that it is socially acceptable."

The bearded, slightly built scientist began his remarks with the projected image of a placid-looking Dolly over his right shoulder. He chose his words carefully, and seemed to enjoy answering questions about the lamb and the work that lies ahead.

He said he expected that his discovery would spark an ethical debate. But he said he wasn't prepared for an outcry that, at least in his country, has bordered on "hysteria" and news media coverage that has played down helpful applications that have nothing to do with cloning humans.

Despite this, he said he understands why his work has touched a nerve.

"I think that these things are very personal. I personally have not heard any suggested application for making a person that I would find acceptable. So I would wish particularly to prohibit that with legislation, to discourage that because I think it would be very sad for the people involved."

The conference, "Impact of Molecular Biology on Animal Health and Production Research," is expected to draw about 100 scientists. On Wednesday, Wilmut is scheduled to address a U.S. Senate hearing on the implications of cloning. He will also visit the U.S. Agricultural Research Station in Beltsville and the National Institutes of Health in Bethesda before returning to Great Britain on Friday.

Shortly after Wilmut announced his discovery two weeks ago, President Clinton issued an executive order that banned the use of federal funds for human embryo research and he urged privately financed laboratories to refrain from human cloning experiments. Congress is also considering two bills that would make it unlawful for anyone to engage in such research.

Although the public is tantalized by the implications of cloning, scientists are still talking about the scientific breakthrough that made it possible.

To make the clone, Wilmut and colleagues fused the nucleus of an adult cell with an unfertilized egg that had had its DNA removed. In order for the egg to develop into a viable fetus, the scientists had to restart the clock on its genetic material so the emerging cells behaved like an embryo rather than adult tissue.

Wilmut is a 52-year-old embryologist who works for the Roslin Institute, a government research laboratory near Edinburgh, Scotland. He said his first interest was the production of farm animals that would produce milk containing proteins useful against human diseases such as hemophilia and emphysema.

"We are confident that within two years, there will be animals on the ground making pharmaceutical proteins in their milk," Wilmut said. It will take longer, however, to increase the technology's efficiency to the point where herds of identical animals could be produced.

Further off is the possibility of reprogramming human cells to produce compounds needed by people who suffer from disease. For example, scientists might redirect cells to produce dopamine, a brain chemical that is lacking in people suffering from Parkinson's disease.

"In the end, it is possible this will be the most important application of our new finding," he said.

Even though Dolly is healthy and attracting worldwide attention, there remain many unanswered questions about her. A critical one involves her age: She was born six months ago, but will she behave more like a 6-month-old or the 6-year-old ewe that provided the genes?

"We will certainly give her as normal a life as we can and see how she ages, how she reproduces."

Pub Date: 3/10/97

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