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March 7, 2003

Robl Review: A Look at Cloning

In 1998 James Robl became the first
scientist to clone a transgenic cow. He also holds the first patent issued for mammalian somatic cell cloning technology.

by Raksha Mudbhary '04

During the last few days of 2002, the world was shocked when Clonaid, a company dedicated to creating human clones, announced it had successfully cloned a human being. The media jumped on the story, while many in the scientific community remained skeptical of the news. Since the birth of Dolly, the first cloned sheep, and major advancements made in the field of genetics over the past few decades, the possibility of cloning a human being is no longer the stuff of science fiction. It is thus timely that the Weissman Center for Leadership is sponsoring a series of events this semester focusing on the theme The Political Embryo: Reconceiving Human Reproduction.

James Robl, a pioneer in the field of cloning, was the first lecturer to speak as part of the series. I had the privilege of also listening to him talk about his career and his involvement in cloning during my class on animal cloning, which he attended during his visit to campus February 20. Robl began his career at about the same time work in the field of mammalian cloning started in the scientific community. He jokingly remarked that after assuming his first position as a postdoc at the University of Wisconsin in the early 1980s, he was told outright that his job was to clone cows. Amazingly, he succeeded in doing just that. Robl and a team of scientists were the first to clone two genetically identical cows in 1998.

Robl's recent work, however, focuses on using farm animals to develop pharmaceuticals for humans, a procedure also known as "pharming." While he is enthusiastic about therapeutic cloning, his opinion of reproductive human cloning was not too positive. During his discussion with our class, he said he was not too "terribly opinionated" about reproductive human cloning, but when asked by a student about the subject, he responded by saying that he finds it to be "one of the stupidest things out there." However, he was quick to add that as foolish as the idea of human cloning might sound right now, in the future it will be up to society to decide whether we should engage in the practice. Robl also said that he doubted Clonaid's claim that it had cloned the first human being. Having been in cloning for so long, he knows most of the scientists in the field and understands the complexities involved in cloning animals. Robl does not think that anyone outside the circle of those on the cutting edge of mammalian cloning research could have successfully cloned a species as complex as humans.

Robl's evening lecture, titled "Cloning and Embryonic Stem Cells: Controversy and Reality," focused on the reality of cloning versus the hype created by the media. He began by explaining the basic science behind both reproductive and therapeutic cloning, so that everyone in the packed Gamble auditorium could get a sense of the rudiments of the procedures. His explanations made clear the complexity of the procedures, while at the same informing us that scientists in laboratories around the world are indeed practicing it. He finds the media attention given to cloning to be gratuitous, because members of the media are more inclined to focus on reproductive human cloning and the ethical issues it raises, while often neglecting the many potential benefits of therapeutic cloning.

In his explanations of cloning, Robl compared two hypotheticals. The first revolved around a couple who want to have a child, but can only do so using cloning techniques. The second focused on a couple whose child is suffering from an incurable disease that could be cured through therapeutic cloning. In the first scenario, he addressed the issue of why human cloning is so controversial. He noted that we really don't know what the consequences of cloning a human being would be. He argued that the ethical issues that arise, from the rights of the embryo to whether humanity has the right to change the rules of reproduction, are complex. In contrast, the use of therapeutic cloning to aid a couple in saving their already existing child, according to Robl, may be more practical and does not raise all of the same ethical issues.

Thereafter, Robl talked about the companies he has helped found and the immense possibilities that could lie in the future if this field is explored fully. His companies, Hematech and Nucelotech, are looking for creative solutions that do not raise the ethical issues that reproductive cloning does. By studying ways to make a specialized adult cell change into another type of cell (the process of transdifferentiation), it might be possible to help a patient without needing to use a human embryo at all.

At the end of the lecture, this seemed to be the point that Robl wanted us to carry away. He wanted us to realize that instead of focusing on all the hype created by the media, we need to realize that there are other solutions out there that could help that couple save their child. He urged scientists to think outside the box, to come up with solutions that are practical and do not risk human life. Interestingly enough, during the question-and-answer session, when asked by a member of the audience what he thought made a good scientist, Robl responded by saying that the three qualities he finds most important are "curiosity, determination, and a purpose to help humanity." As important as these three traits are, Robl could well have added creativity to the list because his talk definitely proved that creativity in science is vital.

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