Successful cloning of humans is inevitable and will happen soon despite ethical objections to it, American scientists said yesterday after learning of reports by South Korean fertility doctors that they had taken a major step toward cloning a human being.
The Korean team did not make a baby -- just a microscopic, four-cell embryo that it later destroyed.
And it did not have genetic proof that this embryo was really a clone of the young woman whose cells the team used and could thus have developed into her identical twin.
But the announcement was the latest evidence that the pace of human cloning research is outpacing worldwide efforts to control it.
University of Pennsylvania ethicist Glenn McGee said he expects that people in other countries will ignore efforts by the United Nations, ethics panels and the World Health Organization to curb human cloning research.
Animal experiments have convinced most scientists that human cloning is technically possible now.
"If you can clone sheep, cows and mice, there's no reason you cannot clone humans," said Lee Silver, a Princeton biology professor who has written a book about cloning.
But this time, he said, it was not an announcement from a biotech company interested in breeding animals.
"This is from a fertility clinic -- they have no interest other than making babies," he said.
The Korean researchers, however, assert that their work was aimed at making human stem cells, which can grow into different kinds of tissues and be used to treat disease.
Fertility expert Pasquale Patrizio of the University of Pennsylvania said that while he would not do cloning -- "It goes against my morals" -- he was not surprised that others were doing it.
"It's like following a recipe -- you don't need any new ideas or special equipment."
Dr. Lee Bo-yon of South Korea's Kyunghee University said at a news conference Wednesday that he had used a technique similar to those of researchers in Hawaii who announced last summer that they had cloned mice.
That technique involved retrieving some of a woman's egg cells as well as the so-called cumulous cells that surround eggs in the ovaries.
The researchers took out the DNA of the egg cell, which would have contained half of the woman's genetic code, and replaced it with the DNA of the cumulous cell, which contained the full complement of her DNA.
The new cell then divided into two, then four.
This does not mean that the four cells would have developed further, Patrizio said.
Human cells can divide two or three times by a primitive duplicating process called parthenogenesis.
But then, with more research, he said, extending this process further to make a baby would not be difficult.
The transfer of DNA needed to do cloning can be accomplished with the same equipment that many fertility clinics use to transfer sperm into egg cells -- a trick that has helped couples conceive when the man's sperm cannot swim.
Silver believes people will come to accept cloning just as they have in vitro fertilization.
In principle, "I have no problem with cloning," Silver said. "I think cloning is not going to have a big effect on humankind.
"This hullabaloo will die down when people realize we just get babies."
But, he added, "the problem here is this is going way too fast." Scientists do not know whether their cloning experiments would result in a healthy child.
McGee believes that legislation must protect the children born of cloning and the people who might be cloned in early experiments.
Good or bad, human cloning is probably inevitable, agrees Alta Charo, a University of Wisconsin law and ethics professor who is on the National Bioethics Advisory Commission appointed by President Clinton.
"That's a long way from saying it will become frequent or popular or tolerated," she said. "I think cloning might become one of those oddities that hangs around the edges of reproductive medicine."
Popular or not, it's coming fast.
Gregory Pence, a medical ethicist at the University of Alabama at Birmingham and author of "Who's Afraid of Human Cloning?" said: "In Pakistan or Korea or Guam, somebody will do this in a year or two. And I don't think the sky will fall. In fact, somebody could have already done it, and who would know?"
Cloning research is outpacing society's ability to assess the implications, Charo believes.
"It may be we're entering the era of drive-by bioethics," she said.
Pub Date: 12/18/98