Cloning for Cash

A&M's pet project spawns a company to mix DNA with possible IPOs

" 'I'm getting transitioned into a loving home. I get my freedom. All they want is my reproductive tractŠ.It sounds good to me,' " he says.

Michael W. Fox, a veterinarian and bioethicist at the American Humane Society in Washington, D.C., is aghast at what he calls the project's "anthropocentrism," the propensity to weigh ethical considerations solely on the basis of what is emotionally and economically beneficial to people.

"I see this as a tremendous exploitation of dogs for sentimental purposes. What benefit is this to the clone, to the animals?" he asks. "If you really love dogs, why not give money to help animals in need in your community?"

Westhusin believes the cloning work will lead to important discoveries about canine reproduction, yield new sterilization techniques to reduce unchecked breeding and allow scientists to save endangered species and replicate outstanding Seeing Eye and rescue dogs.

"You can just dream and dream and dream of all the applications that can benefit mankind," he says of the possibilities of cloning and genetic engineering. "It's just phenomenal."

Sporting Levi's and a plaid oxford shirt, Westhusin circulates among his graduate students like a laid-back dad. One young man complains that a fellow student is refusing to work during spring break. "I'll talk to her," he says with preternatural calm.

Growing up on a Kansas farm, Westhusin saw how new technologies shaped agricultural productivity. He recalls poring over catalogs to select the semen of exceptional bulls to inseminate the family's cows. The farm boy would go on to become a pioneer in cloning, first making international news in 1987 as part of a private-sector team that cloned bulls.

"It's a natural thing for man to develop technologies to make life better," he says.

But Stuart Newman, a professor of cell biology at New York Medical College, believes the role of scientists is to understand the building blocks of life, not to alter them. He has spent years studying limb development in chicken embryos to determine how genes respond to medicines and the environment.

"Cloning is not the way evolution generated reproductive processes," Newman says. "The greatest danger is [the idea] that life forms can just be taken and molded to our specifications. It's taking part of the world which up till now hasn't been subject to manufacturing and bringing it into the processes by which we make objects. I think it's a bad idea, and I think it's a waste of resources."

Westhusin, a devout Catholic, says he ceaselessly wrestles with the ethical dimensions of his work, and his conscience is clear.

"I can see the tremendous benefits it can have on mankind," he says. "You have ethical obligations to pursue research. I don't know of any better way to serve my God."

He opens an incubator that looks like a fridge, revealing several samples of skin tissue. If the team members succeed, they will transform these rubbery-looking splotches into carbon copies of the dogs, cats and livestock from which they came.

"This is not a resurrection," he says. "It's the technology that allows us to re-create animals."

E-mail John Suval at john.suval@houstonpress.com.

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