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US scientist plans human cloning clinic

BMJ 1998; 316 doi: https://doi.org/10.1136/bmj.316.7126.167 (Published 17 January 1998) Cite this as: BMJ 1998;316:167
  1. Deborah Josefson
  1. San Francisco

    A Chicago scientist plans to open a human cloning clinic within the year and hopes to produce the first human clone within 18 months.

    The scientist, Richard Seed, wants to offer the procedure to infertile couples. Dr Seed holds a doctorate in physics and is not medically qualified. He does, however, have experience in reproductive genetics and was involved in introducing the process of in vitro embryo transfer from farm animals to humans.

    Dr Seed's announcement has rekindled debate on the feasibility as well as on the ethical, moral, and legal consequences of human cloning. After the successful cloning of Dolly the sheep in Scotland last year, President Clinton banned federal funding for research into human cloning and proposed a law forcing a five year moratorium on such work. Acknowledging that the federal ban would not affect private research, President Clinton urged the private sector to adhere to the moratorium as well. ‘Any discovery that touches upon human creation is not simply a matter of scientific inquiry. It is a matter of morality and spirituality as well. That is why I’m urging the entire scientific community … to heed the federal government's example,’ President Clinton said last March.

    Despite the president's proposal, the legislation has yet to be enacted and has not even cleared the initial stages of review by Congress. Dr Seed's cloning clinic may well beat the timetable for action by Congress. Conversely, it may also prompt earlier action. An emergency meeting of the National Bioethics Committee took place soon after Dr Seed's announcement. One member, Thomas Murray, called human cloning ‘grossly unethical.’ However, Harold Shapiro, chairman of the National Bioethics Committee's cloning division, said: ‘I think there are some cases, undoubtedly, where cloning in the future may be something to try out, but at the moment, for scientific and ethical reasons, it is premature.’

    Last year the bioethics committee found that cloning human cells was potentially beneficial medically and might spark advances in cancer treatment, cystic fibrosis, diabetes, immune function, and tissue repair and regeneration but concluded that a moratorium be held on cloning entire humans.

    Commenting on Dr Seed's announcement, Mike McCurry, the White House press secretary, said that ‘the scientific community and President Clinton should make it clear to him that should he carry through his course of action, he has elected to become irresponsible, unethical, and unprofessional.’ Donna Shalala, secretary of the Department of Health and Human Services, said that the Food and Drug Administration has the authority to regulate human cloning in the meantime.

    Dr Seed said that if he is banned from opening a clinic in the United States he would go to another country and added that he has already spoken to officials in Mexico. He said that he has four infertile couples already signed up for the procedure and has assembled a team of doctors and laboratory researchers but needs another $2m (£1.3m) in funding to open his clinic. He declined to disclose the identity of the couples and doctors.

    In an interview with Cable News Network, Dr Seed said that he believes that opposition to cloning will pass in time: ‘Gradually, the ethical positions will change, and they will change when there are half a dozen bouncing baby clones.’ He added: ‘Any new technology creates fear and horror … but eventually receives enthusiastic endorsement … and that's what I think will happen with human cloning.’ Dr Seed also said that moral concerns were not enough to stop science and contended that cloning will enable humanity to become ‘closer to God.’

    While many acknowledge that Dr Seed has eccentric views, few doubt that he has the ability to carry out his plan. Yury Verlinsky, director of reproductive genetics at Illinois Masonic Medical Center, said that he did not doubt that Dr Seed or someone else could clone humans: ‘Practically anyone able to do intracytoplasmic sperm injection is able to do cloning. Any good biological lab that can do preimplantation genetic analysis and manipulation of cells can do cloning.’

    Mark Sauer, chief of reproductive endocrinology at Columbia Presbyterian Medical Center in New York, commented: ‘There's no question that it can be done. The question is should it be done and under what conditions?’

    Even if human cloning is feasible, however, many think that Dr Seed's 18 month projection is overly optimistic. The procedure would have to be adapted from sheep to humans, and this will be time consuming. It took 277 attempts to produce one viable Dolly. At the very least, hundreds of human eggs will be needed, and many will undoubtedly carry lethal mutations.

    Dr Seed said that he would deal with this problem by screening cloned embryos for mutations and abort those with mutations with the consent of the infertile couple. None the less, no one is sure of the long term consequences of cloning. Dolly was produced from an adult sheep whose DNA has already accumulated a lifetime of mutations and we do not yet know their ultimate effect.

    This week, 19 members of the Council of Europe signed an agreement in Paris to prohibit ‘any intervention seeking to create a human being genetically identical to any other human being, whether living or dead, by whatever means.’

    Britain and Germany did not sign the agreement but both countries say they have existing national legislation which is sufficient to ban the cloning of human beings.

    Figure1

    Dr Richard Seed has created a lot of media interest

    CHARLES BENNETT/ASSOCIATED PRESS

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