by Pia K. Hansen Dolly the Sheep died last week. She looked like a regular Scottish sheep, but she didn't come into the world in as ordinary a way as she left it. The first of her kind, Dolly was a clone created by splicing a sheep egg-cell without a nucleus together with a cultured udder cell from a six-year-old female sheep, then implanting the whole thing in a surrogate sheep mother.
"She was an icon. In many ways she was the flagship of the cloning universe," says Matt Weaver, a senior graduate student in WSU's biotechnology training program. "Any product of cloning gets an initial response, but these animals are not super-animals. They die just like any other animal."
Weaver is one of the people behind a symposium on Saturday, March 1, which gathers cloning experts and researchers from across the nation at WSU in Pullman, to talk about cloning biotechnology, its technical application and ethical implications.
"We have been trying to gather experts from a broad range of cloning fields and from many different types of programs," says Weaver, who works with cancer genes under a program sponsored by the National Institute of Health (NIH) at WSU.
But don't expect to see any babies there. Weaver would like to put some distance between what's going on in WSU's laboratories and the recent claims by Raelian cult members that they have cloned humans.
"I mean, it's certainly possible to clone a human, and it's tough to tell if they did it," says Weaver. "But as a researcher you would never go after cloning the whole human, you would go after cloning parts of the immune system or after being able to grow people's own kidneys for transplants. Those are the real benefits of this technology."
Among the day's presentations will be one about how to bring back extinct or endangered species, using cloning technology.
"That's usually something people can really sink their teeth into -- it's entirely possible to do this," says Weaver. "But there are some other issues with doing this as well," since reintroducing extinct species may have a completely unforeseen and unpredictable impact on current habitats and the environment in general.
One area where cloning and stem-cell research is advancing with huge strides is within the pharmaceutical industry.
"For example, the insulin you buy today was not produced by a human body -- it was made by bacteria," says Weaver. "Some people are working on using cloning to generate beneficial proteins in an animal that is closer to humans than bacteria are. If you could make insulin in cow's milk or chicken eggs it would not only be really cheap, it would also be more efficient because it would be closer to human insulin."
Last year, Stanford University opened a research center dedicated to stem-cell research, another controversial topic that will be covered on Saturday.
"The controversy over stem-cell research comes from the fact that some of the stem-cells used are embryonic -- they are from fetuses that essentially are aborted," says Weaver. "But right now, lots and lots of money is being pumped into doing research on how to harvest stem-cells from adult bodies -- from your skin, for instance. Chinese researchers have already isolated breast cells, and they can make them develop into nerves or skin, for instance."
Weaver says Dr. Raymond Reeves, the director of the NIH-sponsored program at WSU, has been instrumental in pulling this symposium together. Just because you don't have an advanced degree in biochemistry, however, doesn't mean you can't get anything out of the scheduled presentations.
"It may help to have some scientific background," says Weaver. "But I would hope that what people take away from the symposium is the impression that cloning is one incredibly powerful technique and that the medical benefits to us, as humans, are limitless."
The symposium is on Saturday, March 1, in the Center for Undergraduate Education Building, Room 202, from 8:30 am to 4 pm. Free. Lunch is provided for guests who preregister. Call: 509-335-6235.