An identical copy: Cloning provides life applications

Thomas Jamieson-Lucy

In 1993 scientist Ian Wilmut and his team began a project making genetic changes in farm animals. He never imagined his work would lead to creating a clone. Four years later, he conceived a healthy, cloned lamb named Dolly.
“Our objective was to make genetic change, and I think we always thought we’d find a way of doing that,” Wilmut said. “The other possibilities, making clones of adults, at the beginning almost nobody expected that to work; it wasn’t our objective.”
The original goal for Wilmut was to create an efficient way of making precise genetic changes in animals and making genetically modified animals practical.
“We were one of a number of groups that knew how to make genetic changes in animals by adding genes into animals, but that process [was] inefficient, where only one percent of the eggs that you manipulated [became] animals where the genes work,” Wilmut said. Genetic change “was limited in that you [could] only add genes, but we began to think about what would happen if we could have cells in a lab where we could make changes in the cells, which is something molecular biologists do all the time. We could make changes in the cell and then do nuclear transfer from them. It would mean the livestock would have the precise gene we wanted to make.”
The process Wilmut used to clone Dolly — nuclear transfer — involved taking the nucleus of a non-reproductive cell and putting it into an egg cell without a nucleus.
The egg cell then began to divide, creating an early stage embryo. The embryo had the same DNA as the original non-reproductive cell, and a clone of the original cell was created.
The precision that scientists are now able to achieve because of Wilmut’s research was also important in developing genetically modified foods. Since most of the food people eat is genetically modified in some way, this has become a controversial issue.
In the United States, genetically modified foods are not labeled, making it difficult to know whether or not food is genetically modified. At the same time, scientists can modify a plant’s genes in such a way so plants can  produce more in a smaller area.
“I wouldn’t say that I am 100 percent against them, but I’m definitely not for [genetically modified organisms]. They are really helpful as far as humanitarian aid and for people that are hungry and have no other way to get food,” senior Kate Okker-Edging said. “In the United States, where we have the ability to produce food, companies don’t have to label genetically modified foods, so you don’t really know if you’re eating them, and I think that’s what bothers me the most. I would like to know what I’m eating.”
Since precise modifications of genes in plants has become widespread in such a short time, scientists still do not know if genetic modifications will produce unforeseen consequences.
“A lot of it is we don’t know that much about them. It could turn out that they’re fine and everything works out perfectly, but there’s just that unknown,” Okker-Edging said. “In the past there have been things like DDT that scientists thought were great but ended up being very toxic, and I think it’s just an element of the unknown with GMOs.”
This aspect of Wilmut’s research sparked heated debates and affected billions of people because genetically modified organisms are unavoidable in society. Wilmut’s project not only allowed for the creation of genetically modified organisms, it also opened up new methods for studying and treating disease. Applications of cloning have the potential to help cure illnesses through stem cell therapy.
“There’s a company that has cattle which make human antibodies. The human genes have been put into the animals and the bovine genes have been taken out,” Wilmut said.  “If you were to take the protein from, let’s say, H.I.V. or a cancer, we could choose the right protein and inject it into these cattle to create antibodies. Then those antibodies could be injected into people to treat H.I.V. or cancer. And that is probably the best thing to come from cloning.”
Stem cell therapy has a wide application because stem cells can grow to become any type of cells in the body. This can help patients recover from tissue-damaging diseases such as cancer.
“The fact that the genetic material is identical in clones is incredibly important,” senior Nikhilesh Sharma said. A person “can grow a kidney or something from their own genetic material, and there will be no rejection, and that’s probably what’s the most interesting to me.”
Sharma, who is interested in becoming a doctor, works as a research assistant at the University of Missouri—Columbia. Although he helps with a project focused on cancer detection,  he sees how stem cell therapy will play a role in cancer treatment.
“The thing about cancer in general is that it’s really harmful to the surrounding areas [of] the tumors,” Sharma said. “If a cancer tumor is taking up space or taking up blood, it could destroy the stem cells that are already there. Then new cells won’t grow there, even if you remove the tumor just because those stem cells won’t be there to differentiate into the specialized cells that are in the region. That’s an instance in which growing stem cells can be used to regrow that tissue.”
Although Wilmut’s research provided a basis for the science behind stem cells, which aid in cancer recovery, he believes the most important thing to come from his research is the way it has changed the way people think. His work showed that a cell could go back from an adult non-reproductive cell to an embryonic stage, which laid the foundation for modern stem cell research.
“We all start off with a single cell which becomes all of the different cells to make up an adult person. Biologists have wondered for a long time — how does that happen, what controls that?” Wilmut said. “Biologists used to think the different tissues were so complex and so rigidly fixed that it would not be possible to take a cell and make it go back down to an earlier stage. What Dolly showed is that that’s not true, and the egg can [go back]. And so it made people think about different ways of taking a cell and making it go back.”
Even though Wilmut’s breakthrough happened 15 years ago, his discoveries hold more potential. The importance of his research goes far beyond creating identical copies of animals; it is changing how we approach diseases believed to be impossible to cure before.
“We can take skin cells from somebody, change them to these embryonic cells and then use them to differentiate something else, say a liver cell. One day we may think of putting the cells back into the person,” Wilmut said. “In the present it is a very, very powerful research tool, and in the future [it] may be a source to treat diseases.”
By Thomas Jamieson-Lucy