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SOUTH KOREA: Ethical Worries Dog Canine Cloning

Ahn Mi Young

SEOUL, Aug 26 2005 (IPS) - The success of South Korean scientists in canine cloning has raised hopes of medical breakthroughs as also serious ethical questions, especially since the next animal on the line in laboratories here is man’s genetic cousin, the monkey.

”At the end of August, we will kickstart work on monkeys but only for stem cell research purposes,” said Ahn Gyu-Ri, professor at the prestigious Seoul National University (SNU) and colleague to Hwang Woo Suk, who led the dog duplication effort, so dramatically revealed to the world on Aug. 3.

After Dolly, the sheep cloned in 1998 and now Snuppy, (short for SNU puppy), the next logical question is how far are scientists away from cloning a monkey? And if that becomes possible, when are human beings going to clone their own kind?

Monkeys are ideal mammals for the exploration of human diseases, because they possess genetic codes that are closest to man’s and cloning simians extends the logic of spending millions of dollars on duplicating lower mammalian species.

Snuppy, now a frisky 121-day-old, is only the latest of 13 mammalian species including mules, horses, rats, cats, deer and goats already cloned by scientists. And the successful duplication of man’s best friend naturally raises the possibility of cloning monkeys.

Hwang, who led SNU’s stem cell research team to end the seven-year race to clone a dog, dismissed the idea but more for technical reasons than ethical ones. ”We have already concluded that it would be a stupid thing to attempt to clone a monkey by using the current level of cloning technology”.

In technology-crazy Korea, the voice of anti-cloning Cassandras is hard to hear amidst the clamour of the majority of people who support the leadership in stem cell research that their scientist team has secured worldwide.

”I am afraid that the Pandora’s box may have already been opened,” said Koo Young-Mo, professor at Ulsan University’s medicine department.

”I know Prof. Hwang says what he intends not to (clone a monkey), but cloning technology has already crossed a threshold, where scientists and consumers may become more tempted to clone a human after moving onto the monkey as the next mammal to clone,” Koo said.

The anxiety of South Korea’s powerful voluntary sector is one more clue to the direction in which cloning technology is heading. A group of eight non-government organisations (NGOs) gathered under the same roof, a day after Snoop’s ‘coming out’ to issue dire warnings.

”We are very concerned about the ramifications about the cloned dog. Because there is no compelling reason to fully guarantee that the current cloning technology is not bringing us closer to cloning a man. We may have already crossed the technology threshold where it could be feasible to clone a man as well,” said the NGO representatives.

Hwang has tried to calm such disquiet by saying, ”Cloning a human? No, a cloned man exists only in science fiction, at least, during this century. There are too many hurdles to get over to lead the current cloning technology to be used for cloning a man”. .

There is however, growing concern about possible misuse of Hwang’s cloning advances by rogue scientists in other countries for purposes he does not intend. In Korea itself, human reproductive cloning is banned.

In other countries that are pursuing the technology, including the United States, a fierce debate is raging over where to stop -human cloning or right down to the production of stem cells.

”The problem is not that simple,” said Ulsan University’s Koo. ” What if somebody out there tries to use Hwang’s technology already published (in the Aug. 4 edition of Nature) for cloning a man? I know Prof. Hwang is not a man who would be tempted to do what he promises not to. Still, this is like a Pandora’s box: there is a potential risk inherent in the technology”.

A majority of South Koreans back Hwang’s endeavour in the hope that stem cell technology leadership will lead to medical breakthroughs in treating diseases considered incurable so far.

A cloned dog is useful enough because, like man, his best friend is also susceptible to diseases that afflict him like diabetes, cancer and senile dementia and for which stem cell technology offers hope.

Embryonic stem cells are the source of all tissue and researchers say they can be coaxed to grow into new hearts, brains and other ailing body parts to extend human life.

Much will depend on Snuppy’s progress, considering Dolly died prematurely in 2003 of cancer and arthritis and without providing too many answers to human diseases.

For now, Snuppy demonstrates how hard, expensive and ineffective it is to clone a pooch. Snuppy was the product of 123 tries as 1,095 cloned embryos were implanted into 123 surrogates to achieve just three pregnancies.

One foetus miscarried, another was born but died of pneumonia in 22 days. The experiments have sparked protests from animal rights activists as cruel.

Hwang grew up in a poor farming family with his single mother who kept cows as a means of raising seven children including the man who now figures on postage stamps as a national hero.

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