Year in Review: 1997


Re-rank the list of top news stories of 1997


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Princess Diana's death stuns the world

Weld steps out -
Cellucci steps forward

Mother Teresa is laid
to rest at age 87

Chinese rule returns
to Hong Kong

Supreme Court strikes
down 'Net decency act

UPS strike disrupts thousands of firms

Heaven's Gate cult commits mass suicide

Mars Pathfinder explores Red Planet

Ellen comes out, marking a first in TV

For the first time, a mammal is cloned

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Medical, ethical questions posed

By Larry Tye, Globe Staff, 02/25/97

News that a scientist has for the first time genetically cloned an adult sheep had researchers predicting yesterday that it won't be long before farmers will be tending herds of pigs or cows that are duplicates of each other.

The medical repercussions of the announcement are even more intriguing: genetically engineered animals to grow hearts, livers and other organs that could be transplanted into humans with no danger of rejection.

Scientists say they expect the feat announced by Scottish scientists over the weekend can easily be duplicated, and a similar cloning of an adult mammal could be completed in Massachusetts by the end of the year. Once that is done, they add, other applications of the technique are likely to be worked out with lightning speed.

But as researchers push ahead, ethicists and legal scholars are raising troubling questions about the breakthrough. What if wealthy individuals tried to clone themselves? they ask. Or parents decided they'd rather design a child than merely give birth to one? And who owns the leftover material?

Deluged by such imponderables, President Clinton yesterday ordered a special commission to review those and other issues and report back to him in 90 days.

"Whenever you fiddle with nature you always end up with unanticipated problems," said Andrew Rowan, director of the Center for Animals and Public Policy at Tufts University School of Veterinary Medicine. "That's the one paradigm we can be sure of -- that we'll have problems along with the advantages."

The debate over those problems and possibilities was set off by Saturday's announcement that Scottish researchers had created the first genetically identical copy of an adult mammal. They did it by overcoming what had been thought to be an insurmountable hurdle: reproducing a grown animal by taking genes from one of its cells and creating an embryo that would grow into a duplicate of the donor.

The duplicate in this case was a sheep named Dolly, now seven months old, which was produced from the mammary cells of a 6-year-old ewe. Researchers first extracted cells from the udder of the ewe, then extracted the nucleus of the cells, which contains the genetic blueprint. They fused that nucleus into the unfertilized egg of another sheep after the egg's nucleus had been removed. The embryo was then transferred into a third sheep, which acted as surrogate mother.

That third sheep gave birth to a lamb genetically identical to the 6-year-old ewe.

Dolly's birth represents a "quantum leap forward" in genetic research, "and if it holds up it will probably be the most significant leap we've ever had," said James Robl, associate professor in the Department of Veterinary and Animal Sciences at the University of Massachusetts.

The next step for researchers, once the Scottish results are published in Thursday's issue of the journal Nature, is to replicate those results, said Robl. He and his colleagues already are working on that, he added, and expect results "certainly within the next year." It could happen even sooner -- within months -- at the Tufts School of Veterinary Medicine, said Karl Ebert, a researcher there.

Ebert and Robl say they have been working on their own cloning projects for years and have been consulting with their counterparts at the Roslin Institute in Scotland. A general outline of the process is in the Nature article, but the Bay State researchers are talking to the Scots for more details. They're also securing the necessary patents before they complete their work here, which is being run through private companies loosely affiliated with their schools.

Once the replication process is mastered, farmers can have copies made of the animals whose qualities they prize, such as cows that produce lots of milk or pigs that are especially lean. Farmers have been doing selective breeding for generations, weeding out animals with positive traits and keeping ones they like. Cloning would let them do within just one generation what now takes several.

"You could replace existing herds very quickly into high milk-producing cows or lean pork-producing pigs," said Rowan. Robl, meanwhile, predicted that within five years "farm animals will become like fruit trees, where we can propagate them vegetatively. All fruit trees we have today are basically clones of some original tree that was found to be very productive."

The implications could be even more revolutionary in medicine. Humans typically reject organs transplanted from animals, but researchers could soon be genetically modifying the animals so they no longer would produce the chemicals that touch off that rejection response. That, Robl said, could mean producing animals with hearts, livers, kidneys and other organs that could be transplanted into humans "without the human body's rejecting them."

Cloning also could allow biotechnology companies to more quickly and effectively produce disease-fighting proteins and drugs, although that's "probably likely to happen in the distant future," said Xiangzhong Yang, associate professor of animal science at the University of Connecticut.

James Geraghty, president of Framingham-based Genzyme Transgenics Corp., was even more cautious, saying: "This technology is years away, and we think it adds very little. By the time it gets real we think we'll have simpler ways of improving molecular biology."

To Michael McGraw, spokesman for People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals, the cloning is "unethical." He said it is time our "society learned to respect our fellows, not exploit them for every fool thing."

But Ebert, the Tufts researcher, said cloning could actually save the lives of animals. A drug could be given to an experimental animal and withheld from a clone, and the effect of the drug would be isolated because the animals are identical, he said. The same study run today without clones requires hundreds of test animals to average out the effects of individual differences.

While the Scottish results don't guarantee that humans could be similarly cloned, even the prospect has ethicists hotly debating the issue, and the need for regulating the process. "We have no laws on that, but the only reason we don't have laws is because scientists have been telling us for the last 25 years that it's not possible to do," said Dr. George Annas, professor of health law at Boston University School of Public Health.

"Almost definitely Congress will now pass such a law and Clinton would certainly sign it."

"I don't think any reasonable, rational person would want to clone themselves," Annas said, "but an eccentric millionaire might want to if he thought there was no one worthy of leaving his money to. He might want to leave it to a clone. There's no way of stopping the super-rich from going offshore to clone themselves."

Possibilities like that lie behind the president's decision yesterday to ask an existing bioethics advisory commission to review the implications of the Scottish findings for human beings.

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