A new technique developed by a US company makes it far simpler to produce "designer babies", raising fears that human cloning may be illegally being done using similar methods.
The American team used the new procedure to create baby mice from genetically altered skin cells of adult animals. It claimed that the method is more efficient than the one used to clone Dolly, the sheep, and is more suited for human use as it had fewer side effects.
Scientists at the US biotech company, Advanced Cell Technology, inserted reprogrammed skin cells from an adult mouse into mice embryos to create offspring, some of whom were full clones and others partial clones of the specimen from whom the skin cells were taken.
The company said it used the technique for harvesting stem cells to treat diseases like Parkinson's and stroke. But ACT's chief scientific officer, Robert Lanza, told The Independent of London that a rogue attempt to perform the technique on humans was now too real to be ignored.
"It's unethical and unsafe, but someone may be doing it today," Lanza told the newspaper.
Ironically, the breakthrough involving genetic reprogramming of skin cells so they revert to an embryonic-like was praised by the Catholic Church and US President George Bush last year as a morally acceptable way of producing embryonic stem cells without having to create or destroy human embryos.
Lanza said, using the new method, it is possible to take a few skin cells from, say, Albert Einstein, and have a child that is 10% to 70% Albert Einstein by just injecting a few of the cells into an embryo.
The new cloning method combines the technique of reprogramming skin cells with other methods pioneered by researchers elsewhere. From the experiments on mice, Lanza said, it's possible to take a human skin cell, reprogramme it back to its embryonic state and then insert it into an early human embryo. The resulting offspring would share genes of three people - the two parents as well as the person who gave the skin tissue. Such children, who share a genetic mix of two or more individuals are known as chimeras.
But the new method can be used to produce a 100% clone as well. This is achieved by using a defective embryo that has four sets of chromosomes instead of the normal two. This "tetraploid" embryo can only develop into the placenta of the foetus. And when a reprogrammed skin cell is injected into it, the rest of the foetus develops from the skin cell to become a full clone of the person whose skin was used.
"Cloning isn't here now, but with this new technique we have the technology that can actually produce a child. If this was applied to humans it would be enormously important and troublesome," Lanza was quoted as saying