Cloning, De-extinction, and Possibly Human Applications

Posted by Pete Shanks March 29, 2013
Biopolitical Times

Antonio Regalado of MIT Technology Review got a nice scoop at the TEDx DeExtinction conference: George Church and Robert Lanza are starting a company together. It's going to be involved in reviving extinct species and so their tentative name for it is "Ark Corporation."

Church is bringing to the table his synthetic biology expertise, long-standing interest in tweaking genomes, and entrepreneurial savvy. Lanza has been cloning cattle and other species for ages, and like Church boasts years of experience in public relations.

Regalado reports that Lanza has filed numerous patent applications for using iPS cells to make "animals of a desired genetic make-up," as well as to re-create extinct ones, and also for purposes of human reproduction. Indeed, he claims that he and Church will have backing from "top human IVF clinics" for their new venture. Why?

Here's one possible scenario: Theoretically, iPS techniques could one day be used to make sperm from a woman's cells or eggs from a man's; it's already been done in mice. This immediately raises the prospect of gay and lesbian couples having children together that are related to both of them. Any effort to do this would be an extraordinarily dangerous experiment, but that doesn't mean it hasn't been proposed. (See this Op-ed by Marcy Darnovsky: "Female Sperm and Gay Guinea Pigs.") Perhaps some fertility clinics think they might get in on the ground floor of a profitable new product line?

And then there is the possibility of adjusting the genetic make-up of gametes to create actual "designer babies." Church, however, insists he and Lanza are not going into human reproduction. This is his denial:

"It's not part of the company. And if it were, we wouldn't be saying it."

It seems clear that the "de-extinction" talk is a sideshow for them, "a goodwill thing," in Church's words. Commercial cloning of cows and pigs, which has been mooted for over a decade now, is a more plausible goal for making serious money in the medium term. But it's not a stretch to think that human applications may be in prospect.

Lanza has not only been cloning animals for many years, he has run experiments on reprogramming human somatic cells using animal eggs (that didn't really work), and was part of the team that claimed in 2001 to have created the first human cloned embryo (they hadn't). He has long advocated the use of iPS cells for therapy, as "one of the Holy Grails of medicine," and is running a clinical trial using embryonic stem cells. Church has gone a step further, at least rhetorically, and discussed the possibility of "rewiring the genome of a human embryo" and helping parents to choose children's traits. What might the pair of them achieve together?

Previously on Biopolitical Times: