A Cloned Cow...(continued)

But when he and colleague Jose Cibelli joined forces with the Worcester company Advanced Cell Technology, it wasn’t to develop patents for cloning all the creatures on Old MacDonald’s farm, appealing as that might be to producers of milk, beef and pork. Eventually Robl’s team advanced from doing nuclear transfers with embryonic cells to cloning embryos with nuclei transplanted from somatic cells, cells other than egg cells. “Everyone had done embryonic cell cloning,” says Robl. “We realized we’d reached a dead end.” The shift to somatic cells brought new complications and new challenges – was it possible to produce a normal fetus using genetic material from any body cell? Then they took the procedure a giant step further; they used genetic material from a human.

Here is where things get interesting, the point where a low-key animal science guy like Robl finds himself on page one of The New York Times, portrayed as architect of a Brave New World. Human genes in a cow embryo – the implications were tantalizing and the reporters trotted them out, however

A proponent of cloning within appropriate guidelines: Philosophy Professor Fred Feldman.
obscure. Robl is handling the hoopla with admirable composure and he seems more bemused than angered by how the press plays up the farfetched “what ifs” while slighting the salient facts at hand. “For a while we didn’t talk about what we were doing because it was just too complicated,” says Robl. There was a period after the Times came out with its story last November in which Robl was under siege by reporters from around the world.

"The press has a real obsession with adult cell clones, and we’re not at all interested in that,” he says with a shrug. But he doesn’t fault them. Robl understands that “the best way to stir up public interest is to scare people about some looming Armageddon.” Robl’s equanimity stems from the fact that these days he couldn’t be happier. In a career dominated by the hit-or-miss cloning of rabbits and cows, he now has the chance to improve life for his own species. How might people with diseases benefit from genetically altered cows? By incorporating donor or transgenes from, say, human saliva or skin cells, into the nuclei of cow eggs, Robl is quite likely, and soon, to be able to clone cows that produce therapeutic human proteins. In other words, all those years of micropipetting nuclei, nudging them into rubbery host cell membranes and electronically stimulating the resulting eggs which may or may not grow, repeating the process so many times he compares himself to an old lady with her knitting, Robl may be doing work that greatly benefits his fellow man. Picture it: the cow as drug dispensary. That’s what scientists believe will happen when they replace the genes that code for cow proteins in milk with human ones such as antibodies, clotting factors, hemoglobin, even red blood cells, all of which are now isolated at great cost from the precarious donor blood supply. Combined with genetic engineering, cloning may bring us into an age when cows (or pigs, or sheep) will do the work of blood banks, possibly even functioning as repositories of transgenic tissues for human transplant. Some day soon transgenic, cloned cows might be sources for replacement heart tissue, new blood vessels, or healthy nerve cells to cure Parkinson’s disease, says Robl, who has formed collaborations with scientists as far away as Norway. “I would love to see a therapeutic on the market as soon as possible,” he adds. “We’re pushing very hard for that.”

“When we started cloning our only objective was to pick a high-producing cow and make copies of it,” says Robl. “We had no notion we’d be getting into human therapeutics.” Sure, he’s the target of some vociferous criticism. “But we mostly get letters from people with diseases cheering us on.” And how does that feel? “It’s wonderful,” says Robl, heading back to work.