Twins born 20 years apart...big families full of carbon-copy children...a frozen embryo that can be thawed and plundered for therapeutic tissues for its living twin. Welcome to Tales from the Petri Dish, a sci-fi chiller spinning among medical ethicists and the public. The wild imagining began when researchers at George Washington University Medical School reported in mid-October that they had successfully created genetically identical twin and triplet embryos out of a single human embryo.
To be sure, there's a huge leap of time and technology from the published feat to those imaginings. The GW scientists took pains to point out that they completed their experiment on nonviable embryos they never intended to implant. In part, they said, their goal was to stir discussion.
They did that, all right. For many Americans--some of them not yet comfortable with gene-spliced tomatoes--the news was unsettling. That's partly because the study was hyped by some media as opening the floodgates on human cloning. But the truth is, there is no binding regulation or guideline that would keep scientists from creating viable embryos--or going further.
"SERIOUS STUFF." This experiment has implications beyond the infertility arena: Embryonic cloning could be a valuable tool for studying human development, genetically modifying embryos, and investigating new transplant technologies. Such possibilities are the reason that biotech must proactively embrace ethical guidelines for this research.
The biotech industry is constantly absorbing new developments--from real-life Jurassic Park-style research to the use of animal genes in vegetables--that make it vulnerable to unexpected bullets. Carl Feldbaum, president of the Biotechnology Industry Organization (BIO) in Washington, isn't dismissing the embryo flap. "This is real serious stuff that goes very deeply into peoples' psyches," he says. Feldbaum says he'll raise the issue of the association's stand on ethical guidelines at BIO's December board meeting.
Someone should. As biotech's work becomes more sophisticated, the public will more often be asking an uncomfortable question: What will scientists come up with next--and should they be stopped? Biologist Ruth Hubbard of Harvard University, author of a critical look at the use of genetic manipulation to solve medical ailments, says she doesn't think this particular experiment is a problem, "but it shows people can do things that horrify members of the public--and there's no coherent policy."
Unfortunately, regulation of biomedical research ethics has been spotty and half-hearted for years. The U.S. allowed its only national bioethics commission to expire in 1989. As for in vitro research, the Reagan Administration cancelled federal funding a decade ago. So work in that arena has been privately funded--and unregulated.
There is a good example of how the biotech industry has benefited from ethical supervision: The Recombinant-DNA Advisory Committee to the National Institutes of Health actively assesses the ethics and advisability of gene-therapy experiments in a public forum. AIDS researcher Daniel Hoth, now senior vice-president of Cell Genesys, believes such responsible treatment has greased the skids for an "explosion" of gene-therapy experiments with little public opposition.
FIRM STAND. The argument some ethicists have made that our society is too morally upright to even ponder cultivating embryos as tissue donors is unrealistic. In 1990, Abe and Mary Ayala admitted they conceived a baby girl to provide donor bone marrow for an older sibling dying of leukemia, and transplant centers say the Ayalas are not alone. Now, it's time to begin a debate on what new means will be available to such parents.
Dr. Elena Gates, an expert in reproductive issues at the University of California at San Francisco, says she's sorry it takes a fait accompli such as GW's embryo cloning to get the right people talking ethics. On the other hand, she says, "I prefer this to announcing that Mrs. Jones just gave birth to twins--and she's got two more in the freezer."