Geneticists clone bull

From ANIMAL PEOPLE, March 1998:

BOSTON––Geneticists James Robl
of the University of Massachusetts and Steven
Stice of Advanced Cell Technology Inc. told
the International Embryo Transfer Society on
January 20 that they’d managed to clone some
prime Texas bull––the first bull ever cloned by
their method, believed to be the most efficient
of the three methods now experimentally tried.
Robl and Stice said the two offspring,
George and Charlie, represented in
Robl’s words, “a significant step” toward turning
genetically modified dairy cattle into walking
drug factories, who synthesize medicines in
their milk. But both cloned offspring are male.
Acknowledging that inconvenience, Robl and
Stice said they had several pregnant cows carrying
female cloned fetuses. The fetuses were
genetically altered to produce cows who eventually
should produce milk containing human
serum albumin, an important protein used in
maintaining hospital emergency blood supplies.

Amid the recent flurry of announcements
of genetic research breakthroughs, identifying
the bull hasn’t often been as easy.
On February 13, the researcher who
started it all, Ian Wilmut of the Roslin Institute
in Scotland, hinted to media that he might try
to repeat the experiment by which he purportedly
cloned the sheep Dolly from an udder cell of
a ewe who died three years earlier, to prove
there was no bull in his claims about her.
Wilmut electrified the world in
February 1997 by asserting that he had
achieved the first successful cloning of a mammal
from adult tissue, an essential process if
cloning is ever to be done to replicate traits that
only become apparent after animals––including
humans––reach physical maturity.
But in the January 30 edition of
S c i e n c e, Norton Zinder of Rockefeller
University and Vittorio Sgaramella of the
University of Calabria, Italy, together pointed
out reasons to question whether Wilmut did
actually accomplish what he said he did.
“The cloning was done once out of
some 400 tries,” Zinder and Sgaramella noted.
“Only one successful attempt out of some 400
is an anecdote, not a result. All kinds of experimental
error can occur.”
Further, hundreds of attempts at
replication of the results by other researchers
have failed. The more failures there are, the
stronger the indication is that Dolly was a fluke.
Zinder and Sgaramella postulated that
since the ewe whose cell Wilmut said he had
cloned was pregnant when she died, it was possible
the DNA used in the “cloning” actually
came from a stray fetal cell––not differentiated
udder tissue. Thus Wilmut might have unknowingly
achieved fetal cell cloning, a familiar
technique, rather than any kind of advance.
Further, since the source ewe was
dead, it was not possible to do a skin graft,
which could quickly establish with certainty
whether she and Dolly were genetically identical.
Any difference would result in a skin graft
failing to take, erasing the claim of cloning.
Zinder and Sgara-mella recommended
that mitochondrial DNA testing be done on

Dolly and some of the
remaining tissue from the
source ewe. Wilmut told
media that such testing was
being done, and that results
would be announced when
“We and everybody
else had completely
overlooked” the fetal cell
cloning possibility in
Dolly’s case, Wilmut said,
acknowledging “a remote
possibility” that it could
have happened.
Zinder and Sgaramella
became skeptical of
Wilmut’s claim when he
told a seminar at the Massachusetts
Institute of Technology
in late 1997 that he
did not intend to repeat the
Dolly experiment––which
he also reportedly began
without direct preparation.
According to New
York Times science writer
Nicholas Wade, “Wilmut
said in a telephone interview
that he had not intended
to clone an adult cell
when he started the experiment,
which originally
dealt with fetal cells.
Midway through that experiment,
Wilmut said he
decided to try cloning an
adult cell. Instead of working
with a live animal, he
said he used a cell line that
was already available.”
The spur-of-themoment
decision to pursue
an elusive goal was one
warning flag for skeptics.
Announcing the results
prior to replication was
another, and not pursuing
replication was a third.
As Wade explained,
“It is an article of faith
among scientists that an
experiment should be replicated
in one’s own lab in
case of an error the first
time around. Also, it is
usual to follow up an
important result with more
“I don’t perceive
a need,” Wilmut told
Wade. “Repeating experiments
is boring and
Wilmut retreated
to suggest he might try to
replicate the Dolly experiment
only after other critics
including Nobel laureate
biologist Phillip Sharp
endorsed Zinder and Sgaramella’s
Wild Seed
News media and
political figures who may
have prematurely hyped the
Wilmut cloning claims
were already embarrassed
when the Zinder/Sgaramella
critique hit print by
the collapse of Frankenstein
scenarios reported after
Chicago science entrepreneur
Richard Seed rose at a
conference on bioethics in
Chicago in early December
1997, and announced that
he intended to soon clone
humans. The Washington
Times alarmed the religious
right by reporting on
December 11 that Seed expected
to be able to achieve
human cloning within less
the a year. National Public
Radio gave Seed a further
boost to prominence with
frequent mentions of his
cloning scheme on newscasts––even
though NPR
science reporter Joe Palca
explained that Seed “does
not have the money, does
not have a firm commitment
from the physicians
who must perform the procedure,
and does not have
an infertile couple willing
to undergo the procedure.”
John Kass of the
Chicago Tribune and Dirk
Johnson of The New York
T i m e s finally debunked
Seed. He had developed an
embryo transplant method
for use in humans in the
1980s, and founded a firm
called Fertility and Genetics
Research Inc. in Chicago to
promote it, but other firms
soon developed more
advanced technology and
Seed’s venture failed. He
went into mortgage financing,
and lost money at that,
too. He tried to raise $35
million to buy seven small
fishing fleets in an unsuccessful
scheme to corner
the world market in fish
meal. In 1995, Seed rented
office space from the
University of Illinois at
Chicago and began investigating
whether blood transfusions
could reduce the
rate of rejection of transplanted
organs. That also
went nowhere.
The Kass and
Johnson disclosures may
have contributed to the
February 11 U.S. Senate
defeat, 54-42, of a bill to
ban human cloning introduced
by Senate majority
leader Trent Lott (RMississippi,
soon after
President Bill Clinton
called for banning human
cloning amid the spotlight
given to Seed. Opposition
to the Lott bill came from
27 Nobel Prize winners,
rallied by the biomedical
research industry, and was
led on the Senate floor by
Edward Kennedy (D-Mass.)
and Diane Feinstein (DCalif.),
who not only filibustered
against it but also
introduced a bill which
would have allowed human
cloning research but not
cloned embryo implantation
into a womb.
Meanwhile frequent
announcements of
new Frankensteinian breakthroughs
kept on coming.
Only two months after
developmental biologist
Jonathan Slack of the
University of Bath revealed
he had created headless
frog embryos, University
of Texas researcher William
Shawlot announced his
team had produced more
than 1,000 headless mouse
embryos––but only four
lived until birth, when they
all died because they could
not breathe.
Roger Short of
the Royal Women’s Hospital
in Melbourne, Australia,
enjoyed brief celebrity
after the January 29
edition of New Scientist
described his plan for cultivating
human sperm in
mice, as a potential cure
for male infertility. N e w
Scientist said no laboratory
ethics committee would
sanction such a project, but
biomedical research critics
are much less certain.
Overshadowed by
the genetic advances and
associated theorizing was
the late October 1997 disclosure
by California Institute
of Technology researcher
Jerry Pine and
University of California at
San Diego colleague Michael
Maher that they had
successfully linked a computer
chip to cells from a
rat embryo. Next they hope
to link a chip to a live rat’s
brain. Longterm applications,
they said, might
include using such linkages
to enable blind people to
see via video camera.

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