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A Decade After Dolly

Genetic Crossroads
June 29th, 2006

Ten years ago this summer, the world’s first cloned mammal was born. The lamb named 6LL3—soon to become famous as “Dolly”—was created from the DNA of an adult sheep by a team of veterinary researchers, led by Ian Wilmut and Keith Campbell, at the Roslin Institute in Scotland. The New York Times front-page story on Dolly, published when her birth was announced in February 1997, noted that “the achievement shocked leading researchers who had said it could not be done.” The article also introduced the topic that has since dominated media coverage and public discussion of cloning: “In theory,” it said, “such techniques could be used to... create a genetically identical human—a time-delayed twin.”

In the years since Dolly, a near consensus has emerged: Cloning human beings is a very bad idea, and should be prohibited. More than forty countries—including nearly every country with a significant human biotechnology program—have adopted prohibitions against human reproductive cloning. But the United States has not.

The past decade has seen the development of techniques that, if not effectively regulated, could lead not only to cloned children, but also to a “designer baby” world of genetically “enhanced” humans. Again, unlike many other countries, the US has not put in place binding regulations to prevent this. 

The cloning technique that produced Dolly may turn out to have beneficial applications as a tool for biomedical research. But it could also be misused in the production of cloned or genetically modified children. This “dual use” situation is understood by researchers, but has received little attention from the media or policy makers. In their book about Dolly, The Second Creation, Ian Wilmut and his co-authors wrote, “Cloning and [inheritable] genetic engineering are conceptually linked because they are technically linked.”

Along similar lines, the Genetics and Public Policy Center at Johns Hopkins University has warned that “rapid advances in stem cell research and other genetic technologies make the possibility of successful permanent modification of the human genome... much more likely... and as a society, we are running out of time to plan sensible policies.”

The ten-year anniversary of Dolly’s birth is an opportunity to reflect on what needs to be done if we are to realize any medical or scientific benefits that cloning technology offers, and avoid the real risks that it poses.

This will require leadership from all sides. Those who oppose research cloning need to recognize that the majority of Americans are willing to support some forms of embryo research, as long as the need is clear. And scientists need to recognize that most Americans are willing to support cloning research only if it is subject to strong social oversight and control.

Many nations, including Canada, Australia and most of Europe, have adopted comprehensive policies that ban reproductive cloning and inheritable human genetic manipulation, while allowing carefully regulated stem cell research to proceed. We need similar comprehensive enforceable policies in the United States and all countries.


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