Many people do not realize that cloning occurs naturally, a Wake Forest researcher told journalists at the NC Biotechnology Center Tuesday.

Dr. Kent E. Vrana of the Wake Forest University Medical Center, speaking at the Biotech Center for a seminar about cloning sponsored by the NC Association for BioMedical Research, pointed out that “identical twins are clones. Cloning is a fact of life, not some Frankenstein technology.”

Vrana was one of several regional experts who talked about the pitfalls journalists face in reporting the latest research – and controversies – about cloning.

The scientists suggested that it may actually be too early to talk about “therapeutic cloning,” and said we would be more accurate to call it “research cloning.”

Several agreed that science fictional hype over-sells the potential benefits of cloning, while exaggerated fears about it cloud the debate over cloning research.

Vrana, who stated several times that he saw no reason why we should clone human beings, notec that his research on animals at Wake Forest does include cloning.

He pointed out, however, that cloning – the asexual reproduction of an exact duplicate of a living organism – includes such non-controversial procedures as grafting plant buds or shoots to create new but identical plants.

Several speakers at the seminar noted that the popular press tends to use imprecise language in talking about cloning issues. Cloning is not one thing: it includes therapeutic cloning which might be done to treat disease, reproductive cloning to create new individuals, and numerous other procedures.

Embryonic stem cells and cloning controversy

One use currently creating a great deal of controversy is the cloning of embryonic stem cells for research. Eventually, researchers believe embryonic stem cells could help repair tissue damage.

Embryonic stem cells, harvested from embryos in a process that destroys them, have the potential to become any tissue in the body. They may someday help repair damaged brain, heart, liver, and other organ tissues.

Several Triangle-based companies, including Stem Co., Artecel, and Incara, are developing technologies related to so-called adult stem cell therapies or tests. While less controversial than embryonic stem cell research, adult stem cell research is still in its infancy and scientists are still trying to figure out if they offer anything like the potential of embryonic stem cells.

A variety of cloning and stem cell research is carried out at the region’s various University and Medical Center labs.

Vrana, who does animal cloning research for Advanced Cell Technology, the Massachusetts company that stirred up controversy when it announced it had cloned a human cell several months ago, said therapeutic uses of cloning and stem cells may be as far as 20 years in the future.

Will clones be defective copies?

Dr. Randy Jirtle, director of radiation and molecular oncology research at Duke University Medical Center told the journalists that sheep, cattle, and mice all tend to have “large offspring syndrome” due to a genetic irregularity caused in the cloning process. The syndrome causes numerous difficulties, from requiring a cesarean section to deliver large cloned calves to life-threatening defects.

He said that since humans and other primates can be cloned without causing the same genetic irregularity, it’s possible that human clones would not suffer the syndrome. This points out the need to do cloning research on primates before extrapolating cloning data to humans, he said.

Other speakers at the event included:

John Vandenbergh, chairman of the National Academy of Science committee on defining science-based concerns associated with animal biotechnology.

Larry Churchill, co-director of the Center for Health Ethics and Policy and professor of social medicine at the UNC-Chapel Hill.

John Burness, senior VP of public affairs and government relations at Duke University.

Tom Linden, M.D., GlaxoWellcome distinguished professor of medial journalism at UNC, moderated the program.