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Australian philosopher, literary critic, legal scholar, and professional writer. Based in Newcastle, NSW. Author of FREEDOM OF RELIGION AND THE SECULAR STATE (2012), HUMANITY ENHANCED (2014), and THE MYSTERY OF MORAL AUTHORITY (2016).

Thursday, March 08, 2018

First successful reproductive cloning of primates

An article in the peer-reviewed journal Cell has announced the successful cloning - carried out by a research team from China - of macaque monkeys using the somatic cell nuclear transfer technique (SCNT) (also see a brief report here). In principle, this takes us one step closer to the possibility of cloning by SCNT as a method of human reproduction. Over the past twenty-one years, since the creation of Dolly the Sheep by SCNT, some of the moral and political heat has gone out of the issue, partly because of great difficulties experienced even in cloning non-human primates. It was starting to look as if human reproductive cloning was as far away as ever.

The article in Cell should not be taken to mean that human reproductive cloning is just around the corner. It isn't. Nonetheless, this is exciting research. Before anyone panics about the implications for humans, note the success rate. The researchers were able to use the SCNT technique to produce 2 healthy macaque monkeys from the DNA of fetal cells, after 6 pregnancies from attempts involving 21 surrogates. They were also able to produce 22 pregnancies, after attempts involving 42 surrogates, leading to 2 babies that were short-lived, using adult somatic cells (specifically cumulus cells). This is impressive. All the same, despite great efforts, the team failed to produce healthy clones of adult macaque monkeys.

We should, I think, conclude that researchers in this area remain a long way from being able to create clones of adult (or other fully-formed) human beings at will, using SCNT.

I'll be interested to see whether the slightly closer prospect of human reproductive cloning, as a result of this research, revives the moral panic of the late 1990s, following the announcement, in early 1997, of Dolly's birth in 1996. Perhaps the lengthy passage of time just to get this far will dampen down the degree of panic, though the Cell article is only just becoming widely known.

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