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Dog Cloning Raises Ethical Issues

By Neal Barnard, M.D.

This opinion piece has been published in the Austin American-Statesman and other newspapers.

His name is Snuppy. He looks like an ordinary Afghan hound, judging by the photos that have run in newspapers around the world. But he’s actually unlike any other dog on earth. Snuppy is the first canine clone—and a potent symbol for a host of ethical issues about the use of animals in biotechnology.

In addition to being man’s best friend, dogs have long been considered one of the most difficult species to clone. But South Korean scientist Woo-Suk Hwang found a way. And in so doing, he made it clear that scientists are willing to spend enormous amounts of time and money on experiments that are more entertainment than science.

Hwang has said that his group’s aim in creating Snuppy is to develop genetically identical laboratory dogs for the study of human diseases. Others have imagined cloning to be a way to perpetuate the existence of a beloved companion. But neither notion is remotely realistic. Pouring time and money into such clone-based research actually has profoundly negative effects on both human health and animal welfare.

First, one basic moral issue: The cloning process often means operating on hundreds of animals to extract their eggs in order to try to produce an infant. About 90 percent of cloning attempts fail to produce viable offspring. Those born alive often have compromised immune systems and higher rates of infection and tumor growth. A dismaying number—perhaps about 30 percent—suffer from “large offspring syndrome,” a debilitating condition marked by an enlarged heart, immature lungs, and other health problems.

Even if cloning were more efficient, it would still not be the scientific path we need to pursue. Answers to the most pressing human health problems—heart disease, cancer, diabetes, hypertension, and others—lie in understanding human cells, human genes, and, in some cases, human habits.

Profound physiological differences make it very difficult to extrapolate experimental results from a dog or any other animal to a human. Trying to use animals as “models” for humans has produced some catastrophic results. One of the most disturbing recent examples is the anti-inflammatory drug Vioxx, which tested as safe in mice and rats but turned out to double the risk of heart attack and stroke in humans.

Some scientists are using human genetic material to create human-animal “hybrids,” such as pigs with human blood and mice with human brain cells. Yet these animals, called “chimeras” after the legendary Greek monster, raise troubling new issues. There’s little reason to believe that hybrid mice will be much more effective than ordinary mice at serving as a realistic model for human biological systems.

It’s critical that scientists not get distracted by such exotic experiments, especially when there are more promising avenues of research to pursue. It is time to train our scientific sights on human disease. Rather than tinkering with—and often abusing—animals in attempts to make them more like us, we would do better to directly study human diseases ethically and noninvasively.

When we take full advantage of the power of modern scanning methods, genetic analyses, cellular research, and clinical trials, animals will benefit—and so will human health.

Neal D. Barnard, M.D., is a nutrition researcher and the president of the Physicians Committee for Responsible Medicine.



 

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