Sat, May 06, 2000 - Page 8 News List

`Headless clones' a migraine for science

By Pan Jenn-tser

James C.K. Shen (沈哲鯤), director of the Institute of Molecular Biology at Academia Sinica (中研院分子生物所), recently predicted that "headless clones" -- which will be used mainly as organ transplant donors -- will appear in the world in 10 years' time. However, I have some doubt concerning his statement.

First, let's talk about "human clones." Ever since the first "cloned sheep" appeared in 1997, many other mammals of all sizes have been successfully cloned with human beings the main exception. Though the issue has been widely discussed, most people still don't know that "human clones" and "test-tube babies" are basically the same except that one reproduces asexually, while the other breeds sexually, both having the eggs reach external fertilization, or activation. Therefore, "cloning" should be formally called "asexual reproduction."

In asexual reproduction, the filial generation is identical genetically to the parental generation -- equivalent to a producing replica. Creatures benefit from evolution through reproduction, asexual and sexual. Whether people are willing to breed generations identical to themselves, giving up the opportunities to breed "products of love" with their loved ones doesn't need to be discussed here. The point is that "human clones," like test-tube babies, don't grow up in "test-tubes," and that they must be implanted into the wombs of the mothers for 280 days of pregnancy. Even after the "human clone" is born, it will not necessarily be your duplicated self. The gap between your generations -- your age, physical strength, experience and thought -- will always be there, just like parents and children.

As far as "cloning" technology is concerned, I don't believe it would be easy to use it to produce transplantable organs. It is one thing to make animals grow an extra ear or arm. However, a living organism is required to grow an organ which has a complete structure and functions. It is still impossible at the current stage to cultivate a mouse embryo, which normally needs 21 days of pregnancy into a fully developed mouse -- and this isn't even close the the requirements for developing a human being. If women were to go through 10 months' pregnancy only to provide an "instrument" for a transplantable organ, it would never be accepted by the public. However, is it possible to solve the problem by making it "headless?"

Since I was not present at Shen's lecture, I don't want to garble any statements from his speech. However, making "headless human clones" appear in the public media seems to mislead more than educate. First of all, I have no idea where the "headless human clone" speculated by Shen is to grow. It definitely would not be possible to grow inside the mother's body. Even though it might be successfully cultivated outside the body, when will it be suitable for transplant? Additionally, let's drop the issue whether being "headless" would avoid ethical criticism. From the viewpoint of physiology, systems cannot function without a nervous system -- of which the brain is the most vital organ.

Research in basic sciences usually does not take applications into account, and at the same time, scientists always hold a "confidently uncertain" stance, in the hope that any problems can be resolved in the future. However, scientists should maintain their duty and not make unreal "predictions." Facing layer after layer of complex structure and functions in the human body -- from molecules, cells, organs and systems to the individual human body -- modern molecular biology is destined to be disappointed if it holds the belief that by simply understanding how to control genes it will come to know the complexity of all creatures.

Comments will be moderated. Keep comments relevant to the article. Remarks containing abusive and obscene language, personal attacks of any kind or promotion will be removed and the user banned. Final decision will be at the discretion of the Taipei Times.

TOP top