On June 10, 1999, in a tidy New England barn set high atop a green pasture overlooking the campus of the University of Connecticut, the first cloned farm animal in the United States is near birth. Attending veterinarians are worried, however. The calf is dangerously large.
Jerry Yang is at home, anxiously awaiting news. Eight months earlier, Yang had taken DNA from the ear of a 13-year-old, high-producing dairy cow and inserted it into cow eggs with the original genetic material stripped out.
Yang knows how precarious the situation is. Cloned animals tend to be abnormally large and have a mysterious tendency to abort or die at birth.
His phone rings. A veterinarian from his lab is calling from the barn.
There is no sign of life inside the surrogate mother.
``The calf is dead,'' the vet says.
``Do a Caesarean anyway,'' Yang says. ``Maybe we can learn something.''
Yang still has four reasons for optimism. Although few people know it, he has already achieved his first great cloning success. The previous year, one of Yang's students, working under his direction with scientists in Japan, created four cloned calves, all from the skin cells of an old champion stud bull. It was the first time scientists anywhere had produced male clones. The work demonstrated in dramatic fashion that the age of the DNA does not affect the ability to create a brand-new clone.
The experiment confirms a notion that turns scientific thinking on its head: Old cells can indeed become young again.
The work was never publicized because UConn officials wanted to patent Yang's techniques before word got out. But Yang and the university aren't about to let a new cloned calf born in Storrs go unnoticed by the world press. The birth of a clone will be an All-American, All-Yang affair. It will put UConn on the international map for something other than fast breaks and blocked shots. For Yang, the birth will mark the start of his metamorphosis from obscure agricultural school researcher to a scientist working on the frontier of biomedicine.
About 20 minutes after the first call, Yang's phone rings again.
``You won't believe this,'' the vet says. ``The calf is alive.''
About 10 a.m., vets at the barn conduct the Caesarean section. Amy, a 94-pound calf, becomes the first cloned farm animal born in the United States.
Yang runs to his car and makes the 10 minute drive to the barn. He finds that the surrogate has not responded well to surgery and has developed a severe infection. Veterinarians are forced to put her down.
Amy also becomes sick. Yang and the vet load Amy into the back of his Subaru station wagon a few days later and drive the famous calf to Tufts University's large animal hospital in North Grafton, Mass. She is soon healthy and back at Storrs.
It is a heady time for Yang and other scientists. The birth of Amy is further proof that there is a pot of gold at the end of the cloning rainbow. But it's not simply to create Xerox copies of farm animals, as valuable as the advance might be to breeders or dairy farmers.
The real goal is to use cloning to create the ultimate embryonic stem cell -- an exact genetic match of cells in a living, breathing human being. In theory, scientists could use these cells to repair or reconstruct any organ in a person's body without danger of rejection by his or her immune system.
Cures for heart disease, Alzheimer's, paralysis and a host of other afflictions could be within their grasp. It would be a breakthrough akin to discovering a cellular fountain of youth.
At Uconn, A Star Is Born. As His Fame Grows, So Does Moral And Political Opposition To Stem Cell Research. Meanwhile, A Tumor Grows.
We've upgraded our reader commenting system. Learn more about the new features.
The Baltimore Sun encourages civil dialogue related to our stories; you must register and log-in to our site in order to participate. We reserve the right to remove any user and to delete comments that violate our Terms of Service. By commenting, you agree to these terms. Please flag inappropriate comments.