Where are all the human clones?

The man in a white coat takes a swab of cheek cells from inside your mouth. Nine months later you are presented with a little baby boy or girl clone of yourself that has been inside an artificial surrogate mother.

Despite the prophecies of twenty and thirty years ago, designer babies are not the norm. We do not control the very character and destinies of our children. Much is still depends on chance.

And yet the first human clone may be already born. The technology is close if not already realized. The cost would not be prohibitive for someone with the desire to have a clone.

The fear that we would be taken over by a mass of human clones by the start of the millennium was never fulfilled. So what happened all that hype and why have we all forgotten the furore that resulted when Dolly a mammalian sheep was born in the 1970s?

Human cloning is rarely if ever in the news now, except for the occasional and spurious claims of success from some esoteric fertility researchers. To date all of these public claims have subsequently proven to be false.

Still not everyone understands that not all cloning is bad. It is in fact a generic term for making copies of any living thing and it does occur naturally. Human twins are a form of clone.

Artificial human reproductive cloning, which would make human baby clones, is what most people find objectionable. Cloning of stem cells or progenitor cells, therapeutic cloning, is fulfilling some of initial promise and may soon reach fruition with a number of different  groundbreaking applications in the clinic. A third type of cloning, replacement cloning, to replace faulty organs remains a theoretical possibility.

The first cloned sheep, Dolly, did herald a new era for human medicine but surprisingly it did not yield the army of human clones that we might have expected.

Reproductive cloning of humans, fraught by bad publicity, restrictive legalities and the questionable ethics, has never taken off, nor reached the potential of its initial promise.

In its place, therapeutic cloning, albeit using similar technologies, but slightly different cells has shown great promise in recent times and promises to revolutionise treatments in the not too distant future. At least that is the hype of those who work with the technology.

We do not know if a viable human clone is alive today. There is no proof that one exists, but then again there are solid arguments for someone who cloned another human to remain silent about the fact. It is likely there would be tremendous negative publicity; despite the fact that the word ‘cloning’ seems to have lost a lot of the negative connotations it once held.

The idea that human cloning is still an unattainable technology has perhaps been more to the fore as a public perception. If we could do it, then it would have been done by now. However, if it was realized and a clone born, then the fervour of the opposition to reproductive cloning would rise again.

Cloning if performed is unlikely to be performed on a mass scale and remains unlikely. The idea that a power crazy megalomaniac would clone himself or herself to gain some kind of pseudoimmortality remains a possibility, but the most likely use of cloning if the technology were available would be to clone a baby from one of the parents of an infertile couple.

The most likely successful approach to human cloning would be to use somatic cell nuclear transfer. This involves placing the nucleus of a body cell into an egg which has had its nucleus removed. Then a clonal embryo is formed. This is then induce develop using an electric shock or chemical induction. Then after a period of growth it would be planted in the uterus of a surrogate in much the same as in in vitro fertilization. A second more novel technique that could be used involves the use of cellular preprogramming techniques used already in therapeutic cloning.

The images of human cloning from fiction don’t help the public perception. In the Boys from Brazil, the evil Dr. Mengele cloned an army of boys from some of Hitler’s blood. The negative images of the slave replicant clones in Bladerunner, Huxley’s Brave New World and the eugenics (selective breeding of superior beings) in Gattaga are all too familiar. These nightmare scenarios of using human cloning for evil ends are, however, unlikely to be realized.

So would a human clone be normal? If everything went well, there is no reason why not. The first IVF baby, Louise Brown, is now in her thirties and living a normal and healthy life. A cloned baby would only have one parent, but that is not unusual in most societies nowadays. A girl would be cloned from one of her mother’s adult cells and a boy from one of his father’s adult cells.

The phrase “she is just like her mother” will take on a more significant meaning in the case of a daughter clone and her mother, as she would inherit only her mother’s traits. Family relationships would get a bit weird, especially if people start cloning their parents.

One man in the US wanted to clone his mother. The baby would then become the man’s genetic aunt, as she would be a sibling to his mother. In a family of clones it could become really confusing as they all have to buy each other mother’s day presents.

Clones should look identical to the person they are cloned from just like identical twins look like each other. Even identical twins can look radically different, as there is one set of identical twins that are brother and sister. If identical twins are separated at birth, they can live completely different lifestyles and look very different. This is extremely likely when a twin (parent) and her cloned twin are born a generation or more apart.

So is real reproductive cloning likely in our lifetime? Well it is banned in some countries, but not all, so it is possible that somewhere in the world a clone will eventually be born. Once it is performed somewhere in the world than all national bans will become invalid, as you will just need to go to a country where it is legal to get it done. Of course, that is, if you can afford it.

The pressure of the mighty dollar and the desperation of some infertile couple to have a child somewhere is likely to be the impetus for the first clone. Once the technology is viable it is possible that cloning will eventually become run of the mill.

Conor Caffrey is a medical and science writer.




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