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How a Williamsport cow may improve life on earth

February 12, 2001

How a Williamsport cow may improve life on earth



WILLIAMSPORT - At age 23 while just getting his farm legs, Greg Wiles cashed in some bonds he'd received as a graduation present and bought an unborn Holstein calf out of a New York bloodline.

He couldn't have known it the time, but Wiles had just bought Supercow. The black heifer he named Zita grew to the size of a bull, tipping the scales at nearly a ton-and-a-quarter. Each year, she would give almost 5,000 gallons of doubly rich milk, pretty close to twice the production and quality of a typical Holstein.

At an age when other cows are on their last legs, Zita is still a picture of health. Unlike many purebreds, she barely even got sick.

Records piled upon records, awards upon awards. Her offspring are champions themselves, and graze in pastures from Canada to Japan. Every year, 300 cattle groupies or so show up at the farm just to gaze at the imposing creature.

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Even so, as a famous guy once said, the world may little note or long remember Zita's agricultural prowess. Her greater legacy is that this massive cow may play a significant role in the treatment of human disease, from diabetes to Alzheimer's to Parkinson's.

With the help of scientists from Advanced Cell Technology, the Wiles' are trying to clone Zita - three surrogate cows have bovine buns in the oven, and the Zita-identical calves are expected to be born in late summer. The process is too expensive at the moment to envision cloned herds producing double the milk of normal herds, although decades down the road this may be where the industry is heading.

But there are far greater implications of the work at this modest Washington County farm, which could have mesmerizing repercussions throughout the world.

ACT is one of the companies at the forefront of transgenics, which combines cloning and genetic engineering to produce dairy cows that essentially give healing medicine in their milk.

For example, a cow's gene can be altered to produce therapeutic human proteins such as insulin, which is missing in diabetics, or dopamine, a shortage of which is associated with Parkinson's disease.

Suddenly, instead of a pill or injection, diabetics would only need drink a glass of milk.

Further out on the edge, cloned tissue that yields dopamine-producing neurons courtesy of the cow could be transplanted into a Parkinson's patient. As these cells grow and expand, and as the sick cells are choked out, motor skills in the patient correspondingly improve.

Parkinson's disease is a progressive disorder of the central nervous system which limits mobility. If science can stop the progression of unhealthy cells and replace them with a growing field of healthy cells, the disease can be stopped in its tracks and reversed. Under this theory, it may even possible that paraplegics with spinal cord injuries could once again have hope of walking.

Cloning is an important part of the genetic engineering process, because it guarantees that the therapeutic proteins produced in the genetically altered animal will be consistent in each and every newborn cow. Without cloning, the cow's offspring might, or might not, have the therapeutic enhancements of the mother.

As Charles Wiles, Greg's dad, duly notes, there are some boundaries in the field of cloning which should never be crossed; yet there are clearly ways in which human suffering can be eased, food production can be expanded and the environment can be protected through cloning. (ACT is working with the Spanish government to regenerate a species of mountain goat which became extinct early last year).

Cloning and genetic engineering at the moment seem as potentially exciting as they seem potentially dangerous. Ensuring a healthy baby is one thing. But what of parents who would want to check off a list of features - blond hair, blue eyes, right-handed - like toppings on a Sheetz sub?

The New York Times Magazine this week told the story of a couple who lost their 10-month-old child during a routine operation. Although healthy and young enough to have another child, they wanted an exact, i.e., cloned, replica of the child they lost. No matter that the most important part, the soul or spirit, can't be cloned, they seemed to believe the child they lost could somehow be brought back to life. I think most people would be right to feel a little oogie about that.

When Dolly the sheep made her front-page appearance on newspapers worldwide, cloning seemed a far-off and esoteric world. Now it's here. It's in a barn in Williamsport working for good. And it's here in other parts of the country, where its goodness is questionable at best.

Ideally, cloning and genetic engineering will be greeted with calm evaluation. Healthy skepticism that protects the individualism and the sanctity (be it God-given, or nature-given, or both) of the human race is good. Hysteria that works to block all scientific advancement and causes people to suffer needlessly is not.

Lots of scientific and moral lines that were previously unknown or even unthinkable are suddenly out there for the drawing. Which ones we cross and which ones we do not should be determined with no small degree of thought. As always, it will pay to be vigilant.

Tim Rowland is a Herald-Mail columnist.

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