REMEMBER Dolly the cloned ewe from Scotland? That was back in 1996 when a team of scientists from the Roslin Institute near Edinburgh accomplished the seemingly impossible task of cloning offspring from a non-reproductive or tissue cell.
Dolly was reproduced using a method known as somatic cell nuclear transfer (SCNT) that did not require the fertilisation of the male and female gametes like normal reproduction.
In SCNT, the egg cell’s single set of chromosomes of the nucleus is removed, creating an enucleated cell. This nucleus is replaced by the nucleus from a non-reproductive or tissue cell providing the two complete sets of chromosomes.
This is then impregnated into the uterus for development into the offspring. Hence, all the information of the new resulting individual is derived from a single father or mother.
The success of Dolly’s cloning at that time raised ethical questions since, theoretically, this method might have led to the cloning of humans.
Even though the intention, if any, of doctors and scientists to clone the first human might be thwarted by restrictions imposed in highly regulated or easily monitored laboratories in most countries of the world, the procedure could have been duplicated in some remote, unregulated facilities.
Predictably, there were claims by private reproductive clinics that they had successfully cloned humans, though these could not be verified as the identity of the cloned offspring, if indeed produced, was not revealed.
In any case, after the furore over the cloning of Dolly, things quietened down as the procedure for cloning of primates, including humans, seemed to be more difficult than it was first thought. For the record, since Dolly there have been cloning of only about 20 other relatively low-order mammals.
However, the recent announcement by a team of scientists from China that they had unlocked the key to cloning primates – two long-tailed monkeys named Zhong Zhong and Hua Hua – through the same SCNT method used to procreate Dolly has again raised alarms all over the world.
If the cloning of primates might become a standard practice, and abominably lead to human cloning, are we going to see Star Wars Episode II: Attack of the Clones for real?
Furthermore, SCNT when coupled with another currently-touted procedure known as CRISPR-Cas9, a technique that allows editing of the genes of the donor cell before it is injected into the enucleated egg, will provide a powerful tool to embark in producing cloned, designer babies.
Naturally, the success of the Chinese scientists has become an area of concern among ethicists as the possibility of reproductive human cloning would raise ethical questions.
Is the inability to beget a child a sufficient criterion to allow cloning? Should we also sanction anyone interested to clone himself or herself? After all, a clone may not necessarily be an exact replica of an individual as a lot depends on the environment where he or she is brought up.
The additional moral dilemma associated with human cloning is surrogacy, which is considered a legal procedure in some developed countries. When cloned embryos are widely available, wombs will become highly in demand.
There are women who are unable, physiologically, to conceive and nourish foetuses. Conception of embryos prepared in laboratories will have to take place in a third party’s womb, thus the term surrogate motherhood.
Or a woman may simply not be interested to go through the pregnancy but wishes to have a baby of her own all the same. Can a womb then be rented at a price to nourish the clone during its nine-month gestation period?
And what if a person wants to have multiple clones of himself or herself? Can he or she simultaneously rent a number of wombs so that all the clones would be born at the same time?
It may be argued that the greatest incentive of human cloning experiments is to find ways of providing infertile couples with the opportunity to have a child. The ability to bear children is mostly the foundation of a family.
However, the pertinent ethical questions, or bioethics, previously raised make human cloning unlikely to be allowed.
With regard to the latest breakthrough in cloning of non-human primates, according to the scientists from China, the incentive is to provide better animal subjects for research on human diseases.
In addition, this ability to clone non-human primates when combined with CRISPR-Cas9 may create genetically engineered primate brain models of human disorders such as Parkinson’s disease.
The production of cloned animals with diseases may seem cold hearted but the use of cloned experimental animals will minimize variation, hence reducing the number of animals required to carry out laboratory-based studies; for example, instead of 100 conventional animals, 10 clones of similar genetic profiles may be sufficient.
On animal welfare, universities and research institutions in Malaysia have institutional research boards or ethics committees that rigorously oversee all projects to be conducted locally to ensure animal care is given utmost consideration. Malaysia also has the Animal Welfare Act 2015 to ensure that proper attention is given to the wellbeing of animals.
Artificial reproductive technology procedures like reproductive cloning will continue to raise many contemporary ethical issues. But with solid guidelines on bioethics, the moral questions may hopefully be tackled in the best possible manner.
PROFESSOR DATUK DR ABU BAKAR ABDUL MAJEED
Chair, National Bioethics Council