How many Aggies does it take to turn one tabby or tin-can-eater into two? The no-joke answer is perhaps a dozen—the number of researchers, students, and staff working under Westhusin in the Reproductive Sciences Laboratory at Texas A&M’s College of Veterinary Medicine. The Plainville, Kansas, native, who has a degree in animal science from Kansas State University and a master’s and Ph.D. in veterinary physiology from A&M, spent four years as a research scientist at Granada Biosciences, in Houston, before taking over as the lab’s director, in 1992. In the past fifteen years he’s overseen the development and application of what are politely referred to as “assisted reproductive technologies”—in layman’s terms, he and his colleagues have successfully cloned two bulls, three goats, and, for the first time anywhere in the world, a white-tailed deer and a cat. The goal of all this once fantastical and now mainstream activity is to produce genetic copies of world-class breeds and genetically engineer animals to prevent disease; last year, Westhusin and his team experimented on a cloned goat fetus, with an eye to producing cattle that are immune to mad cow disease. Next up (they hope): cattle with more meat.
A Web Exclusive Interview
Why is there so much unease surrounding cloning?
I am convinced that the simple reason for this is the general lack of understanding and education. The word "clone" has taken on, in many people’s minds, almost something demonic. If we referred to cloned animals as genetically identical twins or triplets produced by nuclear transfer or assisted reproductive technologies, would we see the same reaction? I doubt it.
What are the primary benefits of cloning?
Conservation and propagation of superior genotypes, in addition to the restoration of superior genotypes that have been lost due to death or extinction. The process utilized (i.e. nuclear transplantation) is also an extremely powerful tool for studying basic biological phenomenon pertaining to normal development. For example, many studies involving nuclear transfer have impacted our understanding of what is necessary for normal development to occur versus abnormal. Other studies involving nuclear transfer have resulted in valuable information to help with the development of stem cells, which have the potential to treat a wide variety of different animal and human diseases.
There are obviously ethical questions with the practice. What's your view on the ethics of cloning and how do you reconcile any moral qualms you might have?
Nuclear transfer to produce cloned animals is simply another form of producing animals using assisted reproductive technologies and, in my mind, not that much different than using in vitro fertilization or embryo transfer. In terms of applications to humans, certainly there are ethical questions to consider. However, these questions are in no way unique to cloning. It is simply another form of assisted reproduction. I have not found a single case involving nuclear transfer or cloning, even in humans, that does not raise the same ethical concerns that we already face with assisted reproductive practices that are legal and widely accepted in society.
Having said that, I do not think we should be cloning humans. The primary reason we should not be cloning humans really boils down to safety issues. The process is very inefficient and still results in many pregnancies that spontaneously abort and a few of the offspring are born with developmental abnormalities. If the process was improved, to the extent that it could compete with the success of in vitro fertilization and embryo transfer, I can find no ethical reason why it should not be allowed.