For the millions of people with tissue and organ diseases, there may soon be hope. Cloning -- the making of a carbon copy of a plant, an animal or a human -- is already an everyday term, and just as the emerging technology opens new doors in Alzheimer's research, it also creates some serious ethical dilemmas.
Educator and author Dr. Ted Peters from Berkeley, Calif., will be speaking at Whitworth College on Wednesday about the controversial topics of human cloning and stem-cell research. Peters will try to give a theological perspective on these issues, while he also tries to ease public concern by replacing it with knowledge of the possible benefits of genetic research.
The Weyerhaeuser Center for Christian Faith and Learning at Whitworth is hosting the event as part of a series to promote dialogue between science and religion.
"What Whitworth ought to be doing is bringing established theologians to speak on controversial topics," says Dale Soden, director of the Weyerhaeuser Center. "We're not in the business of telling people what to think. The place of a Christian college is to be making sure a variety of Christian perspectives are included. We don't presume everyone will agree with him, but that means we're unafraid of difficult questions. We're fearless in exploring challenges to ethical issues."
Cloning and stem-cell research go hand-in-hand from a biological standpoint. The first widely successful clone was a lamb named Dolly, which took 347 failed attempts to create. Since then, cows have been cloned, and after the mapping of the entire human genome last year, the cloning of humans has gotten a lot closer to reality.
Stem-cells -- which are cells that have the ability to give rise to any specialized cell -- can be gathered from a blastocyst, which is an embryo that has developed for only five to seven days.
Stem-cells can also be manufactured by taking a healthy cell -- say from the donor's skin -- and fusing it with an egg cell void of a nucleus. This way, hypothetically, it would be possible to grow spare kidneys that are genetically identical to the donor's kidneys, eliminating the chance of tissue rejection that often sidetracks transplants.
Potentially, the stem-cells could be injected into people with Parkinson's disease or Alzheimer's, and once situated there reproduce the tissue that's damaged by the disease.
"We deal with stem-cell research in animals," says Dr. Raymond Wright, professor and chair of the Animal Sciences Department at Washington State University in Pullman. "We have groups of investigators doing cloning in trout. If you can do it in animals, it's likely you can do it in humans."
Though Wright deals with animals, many of the techniques and ethical issues correlate to the human cloning process. He says the benefits of cloning include the treatment of diseases and the creation of healthier animals. Currently, the federal government is not funding human cloning projects, but animal researchers don't face the same restrictions. That is not to say that private entities cannot fund human cloning projects.
"Given enough money, the technology at the present time can clone humans," says Wright.
As a theologian, Peters will try to answer the question of "Are we playing God with our genes?"
"I think that one really big concern, as far as cloning, is that it has an extremely low yield percentage of your attempts," says professor of philosophy and ethics at Whitworth Keith Wyma. "If you're attempting to clone a human being, you're going to throw away a lot of embryos that don't work. Effectively, you're going to be aborting the fetus."
Many people, including pro-life activists, believe human life begins with conception and destroying any combination of cells following conception constitutes an abortion. This is one of the arguments much of the current debate is centered around.
"The phrase 'Playing God' is appropriate because we're talking about changing our nature," says Wyma. "We can change ourselves far beyond the level we've ever gone before. The potential for good is huge if we can eliminate genetic disorders like Downs Syndrome, but it opens the possibility of changing people's physical appearances. We may make changes for other than health reasons." He fears this would lead to a class separation of perfect and not perfect.
"It wouldn't be terribly surprising to me if [cloning] were to become widely acceptable," says Wyma. "Once people see the benefits, they many downplay the negatives and concerns."
From a biological perspective, Wright has his own set of ethical dilemmas to deal with.
"You have a responsibility to keep in sight the preface of, 'Do no harm.' If animals had abnormalities, that would be a concern," he says. "Cloning is a tool to achieve an end, and we have to define what the end is."
& & & lt;i & Dr. Ted Peters will be speaking at Whitworth College's Seeley Mudd Chapel on Wednesday, March 7, at 7 pm. Free. Call: 777-3707. & lt;/i & & lt;/center &