Different voices: Ethical concerns raised by cloning

Different voices: Ethical concerns raised by cloning
PHOTO: China Daily/ANN

Ethical concerns over cloned animals

Unlike natural reproduction, in which the newborn has the genes of both parents and thus can be different from both, cloned animals get their genes from only one and are therefore rather vulnerable.

Dolly the sheep, the first cloned animal, was born in Scotland in 1996. Sixteen years later, the Nobel Prize for Medicine was awarded to John B. Gurdon and Shinya Yamanaka for proving that specialised cells, too, can be reprogrammed to become any kind of tissue for the body.

Cloning can help produce more animal products to meet market demands. Animal products here mean more than food and fur. Some cloned animals can produce trans-genetic products, like certain kinds of protein that can be used as medicine. Cloning can also save some endangered species from extinction. And for some people rich enough to afford it, cloning can "gift" them "copies" of their beloved dead pets.

The first pet was cloned in the Republic of Korea back in 2008. But all attempts to commercialize animal cloning in China have failed, perhaps because cloned animals tend to die rather young.

Also, since there is no evidence either to verify or to falsify the safety claims of food products made from cloned animals, wide-spread concern over their safety is understandable.

The cloning of pets too has come in for criticism, especially on animal welfare grounds. One cloned pet dog can "consume" about 80 other dogs because only one in scores of cloned embryos is likely to survive, and the female dogs carrying the "failed" embryos will abort, which could prove fatal for some of them. Hence, cloning is not only expensive but also raises ethical concerns.

The UK Royal Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals has long been accusing those cloning pet animals of cruelty. And in September, the European Parliament passed a bill banning the cloning of cattle or selling of cloned cattle meat, because cloned animals are more prone to health problems. Will the cloning facility in Tianjin face the same problem? We have to wait for the answer.

Zhang Tiankan is deputy editor-in-chief of Encyclopedic Knowledge and a former research scholar at the Chinese Academy of Medical Sciences.

Safety of cloned animal products key to commercial success

The establishment of a cloning facility may be good news for cattle husbandry. China raises more cows than the US on every acre of agricultural land, but its total dairy production is only half of the latter's; and many similar problems are caused by the nation's lack of good cattle breeds. Cloning could enable China to raise good foreign breeds within the country.

Cloning can benefit the food industry, too. The US Food and Drug Administration recently allowed the entry of trans-genetic salmon into the market. And if trans-genetic food were to play a key role in the development of the food industry, cloning will be its core technology.

In fact, biomedicine can also benefit from cloning. The science of organ transplant is quite advanced, but because of insufficient supply of organs many patients awaiting transplants die every year. Cloning can help solve this problem by "copying" human organs.

It is too early to say the cloning facility in Tianjin will help increase the supply of quality beef because the cost involved will be rather high. In the US, no law prohibits people from selling cloned animals' meat, but nobody does so because it's not deemed profitable.

Besides, Boya Biotech's statement saying it is improving the technology of cloning primates is misleading. Published materials show that scientists can only "produce" an embryo with cells derived from a primate, which does not survive more than a few weeks. So mastering the technology of cloning primates is decades away.

The company's aim of building the facility may be to clone tens of thousands of oxen, but general public resistance to trans-genetic food means it will have a hard time making it a commercial success. Until people are certain about the safety of a new kind of food product, they tend not to accept it. Given this fact, the government may not readily permit cloned animal products to enter the market.

So to exploit cloning for commercial purposes, a company has to first convince the people about the safety of its product, and overcome technological barriers and legal hurdles.

Tang Cheng is a Ph. D. candidate at Shanghai Institutes for Biological Sciences.

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