Will Moscow Have Its Own Cloning Clinic?

President of ClonAid Brigitte Boisselier admits that if it hadn't been for the legislative ban on reproductive cloning in Russia, she would have been happy to open a clinic in Moscow. However, this is not expected to happen any time soon.

Scientists from many countries, members of the International Union of Academies, have recently called for the UN to issue a world-wide ban on "copying" humans. As far as Russia is concerned, it legislatively renounced reproductive cloning in 2002, just like the United States and Great Britain. The Russian parliament imposed a five-year moratorium on human "copying." It is prohibited by the law, along with importing cloned embryos into the Russian Federation. The bill, however, contains a proviso on its possible cancellation - if substantial scientific progress is achieved. No veto has been imposed on animal cloning, though, so our own Dolly the sheep, "copied" mice, cats, horses and calves could be mass produced in Russia with adequate financing.

The Russian Orthodox Church, however, is categorically against reproductive cloning. It condemns even therapeutic cloning, which medical experts regard as a potential life-saver for millions of people. Embryonic stem cells could be used to generate tissues and organs for transplants and to treat serious diseases of the heart, kidneys, liver, bones, blood and so on.

Therapeutic cloning is even a greater sin, explains Father Antony Ilyin, an official Moscow Patriarchy spokesman. "While reproductive cloning implies, at least hypothetically, that they wish the "copied" creature well, in the cloning of organs the embryo would be used as raw material only." From the very moment of conception, an embryo bears the "sacred gift of life," and destroying it is murder, Father Antony adds.

But even the Bible "allows" human cloning, parry Church apologists for the experiment. The first "clone" was none other than Eve, the primogenitor, as she was produced from Adam's rib.

However, sexual minorities were the most ardent and unconditional supporters of the Raelian Movement and the company it set up, ClonAid. For advocates of homosexual relationships, self-copying is the much hoped-for, the most "natural" way of reproduction, which would save them having to deal with the opposite sex. ClonAid specialists claim they have received a few requests for cloning from Russia.

Russian scientists, however, are not of one mind on reproductive cloning, while reports about the successful production of human "copies" (three or five, according to different sources) are widely doubted.

Most historians, social scientists and psychologists are against human cloning, because of humanistic and ethical concerns. According to them, in the first place, it abuses human dignity, as humans become an object of manipulation through genetic engineering. Secondly, memories of twentieth-century genocide are still fresh, and their attempts to "improve" human nature (misinterpreted eugenics). Thirdly, there is a danger that genetics will inevitably become subjected to the market. Finally, human cloning will lead to the further social stratification and disintegration of society: the elite alone will be able to afford expensive technologies, eventually transforming into... a separate human species.

Biologists and medical experts are not unanimous with regard to the ethical and scientific aspects of reproductive cloning either. The first attempts at cloning were made in Russia in the first half of the twentieth century. Even the term "stem cells" was originally introduced in the 1920s by Alexander Maximov, a Russian emigre scientist. In the 1940s, Soviet embryologist Georgy Lopashov developed a method of transplanting nuclei into a frog's ovule, but his research was harshly criticised. Later, in the 1970s, seeing a new method of infertility treatment in the hypothetical "copying" of humans, Russian specialists tried to achieve a fusion of the ovule whose nucleus (genetic material) had been removed, with a somatic cell containing the DNA of the donor to be cloned. In the late twentieth century, nutrient media for that technology and for the growth of "copy" embryos were developed and improved in this country. In 1998, even sponsors willing to finance reproductive cloning projects were found.

At the same time, the scientists could not overlook some obvious ethical concerns. "If a human reproduction attempt goes wrong, who will bring up the "outcome" of the unsuccessful experiment?" asks Dr. Ilya Zakharov, deputy director of the Moscow Institute of General Genetics and corresponding member of the Russian Academy of Sciences. "Even if a human cloning experiment were successful, it would still be an irresponsible and immoral thing to do," believes Dr. Yevgeny Sverdlov, director of the Institute of Molecular Genetics of the Russian Academy of Sciences. "The results of animal cloning experiments have revealed various abnormalities of development in most cases." Those included defects of the heart, the lungs and other organs. In addition, cloned animals aged prematurely.

In the case of human "copies," scientists estimate that only one in 300 will have a chance of a normal life. Apparently, in primates to which humans belong, DNA is not inherited in the proper way by new cells in the process of cloned cell division. They end up carrying either too much or too little DNA, that is, cannot support life. Moreover, a number of specialists believe there is a danger to the mother's health, as well as to the baby's, in cloning. On top of that, earlier unknown genetic diseases could appear in fourth or fifth generation.

"Unfortunately, we do not know much about the precise results of the experiments that the media reported as being successful," RIA Novosti was told by Dr. Valery Zdanovsky, professor of the Russian State Medical University and one of Russia's leading specialists in artificial impregnation. "The people behind these works have never shown the cloned infants, haven't provided the promised DNA tests of the mothers and babies, nor reported on their condition. This makes one doubt whether the experiments were truly successful. All the reports could be nothing but PR actions." Nevertheless, Dr. Zdanovsky went on to say, "science is making strides forward, and in the long run, I think, the legislative ban will be lifted. I believe both reproductive and therapeutic cloning are the technologies of the future," he concluded.

The opening of Moscow's first cloning clinic, though, would still seem to be a long way off.

Olga Sobolevskaya, RIAN

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