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INTERVIEW WITH A HUMANOID
By Nicholas D. Kristof
New York Times
DEFOREST, Wis. In a secret, locked barn near DeForest, five
black-and-white calves look up from their hay with huge, friendly eyes. No.
313 approaches, as if to grant an interview, for these are not the ordinary
bovines they seem -- all five are part human.
The five calves are clones, which is eerie enough. In addition, human DNA
was added to their genetic makeup when they were embryos.
Their DNA is still more than 99.9 percent bovine, less than 0.1 percent
human, but the human component means that they are expected to produce a
human protein, C-1 Esterase Inhibitor, in their milk. That could treat
humans suffering from angioedema, an ailment that arises from a lack of C-1.
These humanoid calves offer a window into a future in which lines are
blurred between humans and other species. Biotechnology is transforming the
world around us, far more quickly than we can build a regulatory structure
to accommodate it. Human cloning gets the attention, but for the next 15
years the greater impact will arise from the genetic manipulation of
Infigen, a biotech company in DeForest, near Madison, has itself cloned 193
cattle and 125 pigs. Jenny Endres, the manager in one of Infigen's barns,
last week showed off a line of cow clones that all look alike. "These clones
have the same personalities," she said, beaming.
"They bellow all the time," she insisted. "They're hungry all the time.
They're easygoing, friendly."
Later this year the Food and Drug Administration may lift its ban on the
sale of milk and meat from cloned animals. In the interests of science, I
took a sip of cloned milk to see what might happen. Fresh from the udder,
the raw milk was warm and tasted excellent. (Then I took another sip with
each of my three new heads.)
The possibilities are dizzying. Michael Bishop, Infigen's president, says
that cows could be engineered to produce extra beta casein, which would make
them ideal for producing mozzarella cheese. Other cows could specialize in
producing infant formula or even, by splicing in human DNA, someday be made
to produce torrents of genuine human breast milk from their udders.
Infigen is already cloning cows with human DNA to produce products such as
human collagen (cosmetic surgeons now use animal collagen to create fuller
lips); human fibrinogen, used to treat wounds; and human factor VIII, used
for blood clotting.
In a pig barn nearby, Mr. Bishop showed off his pride: a piglet bred to be
perfect for producing organs for humans who need transplants. The piglet has
had a gene knocked out to reduce the chance that the human body will reject
organs from it.
Biotechnology faces crippling obstacles, including a drought of venture
capital that will kill off plenty of companies. But eventually, genetically
modified pigs (perhaps slightly human in their genetics) will be able to
produce livers, kidneys, hearts and pancreases for ailing patients.
These technologies could help the 80,000 Americans now on waiting lists for
organ transplants. But there are also ethical and philosophical questions
about whether it is wise to blur the distinction between what is human and
what is not.
Francis Fukuyama, in his brilliant new book on cloning, "Our Post-Human
Future," warns that we could face a future "in which any notion of 'shared
humanity' is lost, because we have mixed human genes with those of so many
other species that we no longer have a clear idea of what a human being is."
My instinct is that the benefit in saving lives outweighs the risks. But Mr.
Fukuyama is right that if we are to embrace this future, we must do so with
eyes wide open. A first step would be to establish a cabinet-level Science
Department (replacing the dinosaur of an Agriculture Department, which
should be downgraded to an agency).
The Science Department would regulate biotechnology, but would also be
charged with puzzling through its philosophical implications and educating
the public about our choices, acting as a sounding board for the nation. We
must ensure that we consciously choose our future, rather than let advancing
science drive us into one by default.
I sought a comment from Ms. 313. (In this newspaper even part-humans get
honorifics.) After a moment's reflection, she put it this way: "Moo."
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