Wilmut, a pioneer in the fields of biotechnology and genetic engineering, was the lead scientist on the team of researchers that created the cloned sheep Dolly in Feb. 1998.
The talk kicked off this year’s faculty lecture committee series, “Future Selves: New Technologies of Individuality.” Biology professor Nancy Roseman introduced Wilmut and spoke of his qualifications for addressing topics of technology and individuality. “Dr. Wilmut will address the question of what is the individual in a world where we can potentially generate a reproduction of the individual,” Roseman said.
Wilmut opened the lecture by dividing his talk into two parts, the first explaining the methods that his team used to clone Dolly and the second discussing the future of cloning technology and its ethical implications. “I want to help present the ethical questions of cloning for you so you are capable of coming to your own conclusions about it,” Wilmut said.
The scientist began by describing the process by which his team from Scotland’s Roslin Institute and PPL Therapeutics successfully cloned the first adult mammal. The procedure starts when technicians remove cells from the mammary tissue of an adult sheep and culture them in vitro. These cells are fully differentiated, meaning that they are specialized in appearance and function. The nucleus, which contains the cell’s genetic material, is removed and fused together with an enucleated egg cell by electric pulses. The two repair as a single cell, which is then placed in a surrogate mother to develop.
The resultant animal’s genetic makeup is identical to the specialized cell donor, showing that every cell in the body has the genetic instructions necessary to make a complete organism. “That this procedure worked was an astonishing result,” Wilmut said.
Wilmut made it clear that though the method has been shown to work for adult mammary, embryo and fetal cells in sheep, cattle, goats and pigs, it has never been successful with any primates, which include humans. The success rates in developing viable animal fetuses are very low, and the inefficient process leads to high mortality rates throughout the process.
“It’s distressing enough that we have such high mortality with animals that we have successfully cloned, but mortality to people would be much higher and I think that would be obscene,” Wilmut said.
He used this point to launch into the second part of his presentation: the ethical questions raised by cloning technologies. As most genetic engineering with humans has never been done, Wilmut asked the audience to assume that the processes were proven safe, that cloning had been previously successful in other mammals and that genetic modification was effective. “This might all be fantasy and never happen, but let’s assume it has,” Wilmut said.
Wilmut began with the idea of cloning a complete human, suggesting reasons such as treating infertility, bringing back a lost relative and copying a desired person. He said that though the human clone would physically be very much like the cell donor, its personality would approach only about half of the donor’s. Wilmut argued that social expectations would be put on the clone to behave like the donor, and this could cause serious developmental problems for the clone. His position was generally to respect the integrity of the individual and the family in all cases.
He then brought up potential uses that he felt would be more beneficial and acceptable to society. He detailed the processes of cell therapy, genetic modification and germline therapy. As possible cures for degenerative disease, Wilmut believed society would consider these methods of treatment as appropriate uses of biotechnology. “Is this acceptable to you?” he continually asked.
However, he stated that if these uses approached enhancement rather than just correction, then their uses would be ethically more unclear. Making genetic modifications in humans to bring out certain characteristics, such as intelligence or strength, raised a whole host of questions concerning the individual in society, Wilmut said, and it would be difficult to hold the line between correction and enhancement. “Why can’t we just accept each other for what we are?” he asked the audience.
Wilmut concluded by saying that there are a lot of “applications and implications” of cloning that are in need of societal discussion. As it stands, it will take a long time to develop human uses of the technology, and for that reason, one cannot accurately predict what will become of the technology. He called for public discourse of and education on the issues surrounding genetic engineering and cited the need for a framework within society to make such bioethical decisions.
Wilmut graduated from the University of Nottingham, where he received a degree in agricultural science. He then earned his Ph.D. from Cambridge University, and completed a research fellowship on frozen embryos at Cambridge’s Arc Unit of Reproductive Physiology and Biochemistry.