Cloning: Breakthrough technology in Genetic Engineering

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From frogs to sheep and probably even ourselves, humans can clone just about anything. The prospect of cloning humans is highly controversial, and it raises a number of ethical, legal, and social challenges that need to be considered. But, the question is can cloning increase the… (Featured image is intended for representational purpose alone and has been sourced from https://pixabay.com/en/twin-redheads-serious-dolls-2747717/)

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From frogs to sheep and probably even ourselves, humans can clone just about anything. The prospect of cloning humans is highly controversial, and it raises a number of ethical, legal, and social challenges that need to be considered. But, the question is can cloning increase the survival rate of mankind?

20 years ago, Scottish researchers cloned the first mammal, Dolly ─ a sheep, using cells of an adult sheep. Using the same technique, Chinese researchers have figured out a way to clone a primate. A group of researchers from the Chinese Academy of Sciences produced two clone macaque monkeys – Zhong Zhong and Hua Hua ─ by extracting the DNA from the nuclei of fetal monkey cells. Genes were inserted into non-DNA monkey eggs, and these were stimulated to develop into embryos. The embryos were transferred into the womb of female surrogate monkeys. The somatic cell nuclear transfer technology was used for the first time to clone any close relative of humans. The two macaques are genetically identical as they are clones of the same donor culture of fetal monkey cells.

However, these are not the first monkeys to be cloned. In 1999, researchers cloned a rhesus macaque named Tetra by splitting an early-stage macaque embryo into multiple parts. This procedure was used to create artificial identical twins. An embryo was allowed to multiply up to eight cells. At this stage, the embryo was split to produce four genetically identical two-cell embryos. This was the first time this technique was proven successful.

Cloning using Somatic Cell Nuclear Transfer Technique

In 1996, Dolly became the first mammal to be cloned using the somatic cell nuclear transfer technique. Unlike embryo splitting, which can only yield a few copies, this method can theoretically produce an indefinite number of clones from a single donor, allowing researchers to craft customizable, genetically uniform populations of animals with potential for biomedical research.

Recently published patent US9896699B2 teaches about generation of human embryo by somatic cell transfer method.

Since then, scientists have cloned more than 20 species – from cows to rabbits to dogs – using this technique. But the efforts made by the Chinese marks the first time that non-human primates have been cloned successfully in the similar method. This is an important breakthrough as it may work well for cloning humans as well!

Somatic cell nuclear transfer offers new and exciting opportunities in many areas of research and biotechnology. However, the field as a whole is still in its infancy, with continuing inefficiencies in the process proving many early expectations premature.

In the last five years, 67 patent families focusing on somatic cell nuclear transfer have been published. Of these, 17 families have at least one patent granted.

Patent filing trend of somatic cell transfer technology over the years

With 24 patent families each, USA and China are the first filing countries.

Patent filing trend of somatic cell transfer technology across geographies

China Agricultural University & Astellas Pharma Inc. are the top assignees and own 7 patents each, followed by Sung Kwang Medical Foundation and Li ZI-Cong with 4 patents each.

Top assignees of the Somatic Cell Transfer method

Can humans be cloned?

In 2013, Shoukhrat Mitalipov, along with his team at the Oregon Health and Science University, transferred DNA extracted from human skin cells into eggs. The eggs adopted genes from the inserted cells, and the resulting clones were grown to an early embryo stage, yielding embryonic stem cells.

Currently, only a human body can grow a complex human organ. Structures that can be 3D printed are very simple in form. More complex structures, such as cardiovascular muscle tissues, are difficult to produce via 3D printing. If human cloning becomes a reality, then it can be used to replace failing organs. There will be no more waiting period for organ donations, and more lives can be saved.  Also, there will be a lesser probability of rejection as the cloned organ will be similar to a patient’s own organ.

Potential Applications of Cloning

Cloning can help in studying complex human diseases and disorders, from Parkinson’s to HIV/AIDS to autism. Human cloning can treat patients with heart disease and clone their healthy cells over the damaged ones.

Animals can be duplicated for farming purposes; species near extinction can be recovered.  Also, it can be used for medical research such as disease modeling. Genetically modified cloned monkeys can be used to study the different genes’ functions, as disease models help in understanding different genetic conditions and identifying therapies for the same.

Concerns over Cloning

Human cloning could lead to uncontrolled results such as abnormal development, genetic damage, malformation and diseases in the clone. Even if cloning becomes a success, the life of the clone will probably be extreme with a much shorter span. Since genes are very complex, there can be a probability of a recessive gene being identified very late in a clone, resulting in a whole line of people getting affected.

The success rate of cloning is very low; Dolly was the only clone to be born live out of a total of 277 cloned embryos. Cloning is a very expensive process; it requires technically sophisticated resources, and hence, it is not economically viable to practice large scale cloning.

Every individual is born with a different set of genes which are inherited from the parents. Cloning will lead to lack of genetic diversity. The offspring born from cloning will lack genetic uniqueness. Scientists believe that this lack of diversity will lower human race’s ability to adapt. It will also lead to complex altered familial relationships and commodification of human life.

Along with the ability to clone desired traits, there could be a possibility of people deliberately reproducing undesired traits. This could lead to a rise in malpractices within society.

Despite all of these current concerns, genetic engineering or human cloning is a miraculous medical breakthrough and has immense potential. Further testing and research are required to overcome the drawbacks of genetic engineering. With the latest advancement in cloning, the capabilities of changing human characteristics are unpredictable.

(Featured image is intended for representational purpose alone and has been sourced from https://pixabay.com/en/twin-redheads-serious-dolls-2747717/)

Harshad Topkar
Harshad Topkar

Harshad is a biomedical engineer and shares an unusual chemistry with reading novels and collecting old coins. He also keeps himself updated by keeping a tab on current affairs and innovative technologies in life sciences.


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