Sunday July 9, 2006
Full benefits of cloning a good 50 years away
By DEBORAH HAYNES
THE British scientist who a decade ago created Dolly the Sheep cautioned Wednesday that another half-century would be needed to reap the full benefits of the cloning breakthrough.
Speaking on the 10th anniversary of the birth of Dolly, the first mammal to be cloned from an adult cell, Ian Wilmut also said Britain had failed to exploit the landmark work, letting the United States and Japan take the lead on animal cloning.
“If you look back and consider any new development, whether it is IVF or anything which is introduced for the first time, it does take quite a long time to bring it through to its full maturity,” the embryologist said.
“To the full maturity of this technology, I think we are talking 50 years,” he told BBC News in an interview at Edinburgh's Roslin Institute, where Dolly was born on July 5, 1996.
Dolly triggered a storm of medical dreams, dread and ethical polemic that has never abated.
She unleashed huge investments in cloning research in the quest for cures for cancer, heart degeneration, Alzheimer's and other crippling disease. But critics say advances have been few and overblown claims have been many.
Wilmut argued encouraging developments were happening in therapeutic research, including cows whose milk makes human antibodies.
“It was always going to be a long-term project. We shouldn't be too disappointed just yet,” he said.
The scientist lamented the lack of research into animal cloning in Britain, despite it being the birthplace of Dolly, who was put down in February 2003 after developing a lung infection and arthritis.
“It is disappointing that in the general area of the bio-medical research it wasn't continued in Britain,” said Wilmut.
“I think that it is very difficult for a small country like this to develop fully something which does have international value because once that is recognised the science will move elsewhere and in a sense that is a compliment to the science,” he said.
“The technology was very important and is now being exploited commercially in Japan, the United States, all sorts of different countries.”
The technique that led to Dolly is called somatic cell nuclear transfer and has remained essentially unchanged over the last decade.
After Wilmut's breakthrough, other cloned species swiftly followed: horses, bulls, pigs, mice, rats, rabbits, cats and dogs and others.
But the miscarriage rate of transplanted eggs is extremely high, and of those embryos that make it to term, many have deformities or (as happened with Dolly) die prematurely, raising concerns about the practice.
The biggest interest in cloning is in medical research, such as engineering cows or sheep whose milk can produce precious proteins that are otherwise costly and time-consuming to make in a pharmaceutical plant.
Beyond the horizon is the lure of harnessing cloning to stem cells, the powerful pluripotent cells that can differentiate into any kind of tissues.
That way, it is hoped, patients suffering from degenerative diseases could get a regenerative transplant of cells that is identical to their own genetic ID, thus circumventing rejection by the immune system.
Sue Mayer, a doctor who is a member of GeneWatch, a British watchdog that monitors biotechnology, said achievements since Dolly had fallen far short of what had been expected, and cloning research was sapping attention from practical areas such as disease prevention.
“We have gained a lot of knowledge about how cells differentiate and how organisms grow, but we haven’t reached these expectations which have generated the hype and the promise about personalised treatment,” she told BBC radio.
Simon Best, another doctor and chairman of the BioIndustry Association that ran the Roslin BioScience company set up after Dolly was born, disagreed.
He contended Dolly was a breakthrough that was just as significant as the discovery of the structure of DNA, the chemical code for life, in the 1950s.
“It has sparked an enormous wave of creativity in medicine, the benefits of which we will steadily see over the next 20 to 30 years,” Best said. – AFP