- Feb 13, 2021
The Reality of Human Cloning Behind The Sci-fi of The 2019 Film Replicas
With the upcoming release of Keanu Reeves 2019 film Replicas, a movie centered around human cloning, the conversation of the technology, ethics and possibility to clone humans is likely to rear its head up once again. One of the first questions that usually comes up is “Is human cloning possible?” Well, yes it is. The second question that will likely come up is “Has it been done before?” Apparently, the answer is yes again. In fact, human cloning has been in development for the past two decades or better — within the world of stem cell research. It may not be as glamorous as a fully walking-talking-replica ready to replace you as apart of a special life insurance policy but on the cellular level, human cloning is in practice and is progressing.
One of the first breakthroughs in human cloning came in 2001 when a company called Advanced Cell Technology cloned the first human embryo. The embryo was planned for stem cell harvest but the cell stopped dividing.
Another breakthrough for human cloning came in 2007 when biologist Shoukhrat Mitalipov and his team successfully cloned a rhesus macaque embryo with a process called somatic cell nuclear transfer (SCNT). The SCNT method works by taking the nucleus of an adult cell and placing it inside of a hollowed out egg. From there the nucleus essentially fools the egg into thinking it has been fertilized, causing an embryo to develop.
This was a major milestone for human cloning because of the level of difficulty that comes with cloning primates (primates are more difficult to clone than other mammals because the spindle proteins are close to chromosomes in the eggs which makes it difficult to remove and replace a nucleus to induce the embryo growing process.) Because the genetic makeup of humans and monkeys is similar, the same method would theoretically work when cloning a human.
In 2008, a company called Stemagen produce the first human embryos cloned from adult cells using SCNT. This was a breakthrough because it confirmed the possibility of human cloning that Mitalipov’s team’s work revealed one year earlier.
Mitalipov and his team reached another milestone when they used SCNT to clone a human embryo five years later in 2013. This was the first time that human embryos were cloned with SCNT and produced embryonic stem cells.
First cloned primate babies. Photo credit: Qiang Sun and Mu-ming Poo/Chinese Academy of Sciences
While all of these were major feats, the biggest breakthrough came more recently with the work of Chinese scientists when they successfully cloned four baby macaque monkeys. They cloned two of the babies from adult cells and the other two from the cells of an aborted fetus. The monkeys cloned from the adult cells died while the two cloned from fetus cells lived and are said to be aging normally (see above photo).
This is the first time that a SCNT project has produced live-born primates. The success of this experiment apparently validates theories about the possibility of producing live-born human clones with SCNT as well.
Co-author of the research and director of the Chinese Academy of Sciences’ Institute of Neuroscience, Mu-ming Poo, told The Guardian that there are no longer any barriers with cloning primates. But he also explained that they had no intention of cloning humans and added that society would never permit it.
The world's policy on human cloning seems to vary. Some countries support what’s called therapeutic cloning (cloning for the purpose of harvesting embryonic stem cells) and don’t support reproductive cloning (cloning for the purpose of producing living beings), while others support neither. But regardless of whichever side of the ethical line we may fall on, one thing is for sure, we do have the technology to clone humans and it’s only going to continue to improve with time. But maybe Keanu Reeves knows something we don’t. For all we know, replicas could already be among us!