February 2007 in brief

The Nation Reviewed

Many me

By Kate Rossmanith
Illustration by Jeff Fisher.

On the front desk at the head office of Sydney IVF, in Kent Street, rests a marble statue of three fused figures. Two adults and a child form a clenched posy of hands, knees and feet, and the stone is so dark and smooth it's impossible to tell where one limb ends and another begins. Upstairs from reception, above appointments for couples seeking fertility treatment, are the research laboratories. Sydney IVF is one of four organisations in Australia with a license to use spare human embryos for stem-cell research: permission to extract cells from days-old embryos and create stem-cell lines. "Immortal lines", the scientists call them, for they divide and duplicate themselves indefinitely.

In November 2006, in an almost-split vote, members of the Senate overturned the 2002 ban on human therapeutic cloning. While it continues to be illegal to grow an individual from a cloned cell, researchers will soon be able to harvest embryonic stem-cell lines from the DNA of a living person: cell lines, argue scientists, which may lead to therapies for type 1 diabetes, cystic fibrosis and other diseases. The current legislation restricts researchers to developing embryonic stem-cell lines from surplus IVF embryos that would otherwise be discarded.

Of the thousands of frozen beginnings at Sydney IVF - fertilised embryos stored by couples for future use - around 400 have so far been donated to the labs for stem-cell research. "Half the couples are happy to donate their unused embryos, rather than have them thrown away," Teija Peura tells me. Peura, the principal scientist at Sydney IVF's stem-cell lab, is Finnish and full-faced, with rust-coloured hair and seamless Nordic skin, and I can't tell her age. There's no white lab coat or grey pontificating. A framed photo of Mel Gibson sits on her desk. "He's a hunk. He's also opposed to the research I'm doing - but then, everyone's entitled to their opinion," she says.

Each embryo from which stem cells are derived is less than a week old; it's a hollow ball of 100 cells, a speck smaller than a grain of sand. The three trillion cells that make up our bodies can be traced back to one, a zygote, the meeting of our parents' chromosomes. But that's not when life begins, Peura explains. "The zygote, and an early dividing embryo, is like two people living in the same house, but nothing's going on. The life of a new individual begins at the fourth cell division, when the genes of that new individual become active and take control of development." Sydney IVF scientists extract stem cells from the centre of the ball, the inner mass cell, and allow them to grow in culture dishes incubated at body temperature.

Phil Collins plays on the lab's radio as Peura opens an oven-like door and cradles a small Petri dish. "We just thawed them," she says. I press my face to the microscope and focus on fine paint sprays. Embryonic stem-cell colonies, sprayed flecks carrying a couple's DNA, look like delicate squirts of spores. The groups of cell droplets, no bigger than five thousandths of a millimetre, are bounded patches of life. And they're "pluripotent": "The value of embryonic stem cells is their potential to transform into a wide range of other cells. They are not yet specialised for particular functions in organs and tissues," Peura explains. Unlike adult stem cells, which are typically programmed to form different cell types of their own tissue, embryonic stem cells dwell in the world of yet-to-be-anything.

Because the ban on therapeutic cloning has been lifted, researchers will be able to produce ‘embryos' with the sole purpose of creating stem-cell lines. Scientists will take the nucleus of a human cell - the DNA of one of my skin cells - and inject it into a woman's unfertilised egg whose nucleus has been removed. The egg will be stimulated in such a way that it begins to divide. If it were then implanted in a woman and left to grow, it could, theoretically, produce an individual with my genetic coding, a person who looks almost identical to me. Dolly the sheep was born this way. Human reproductive cloning, however, continues to be illegal across the world. Instead, the egg cell will grow for five days before the inner cell mass is removed and used to create a stem-cell line with my genetic make-up. Petri dishes cultivating tiny, infinite colonies of me-ness.

The delicate frameworks for stem-cell research, in Australia and elsewhere, sit uneasily between science, ethics and religion. We are creating life only to destroy it, argue the opponents of therapeutic cloning. According to Tamra Lysaght, a bioethics researcher at Sydney University, discussion has focused too heavily on the moral status of the embryo: a debate that, she says, is irresolvable. "We've been arguing about it for thousands of years, and we'll continue for thousands more. More than 2000 years ago, philosophers like Plato asked these very questions: When does life begin? What does it mean to be human?"

A five-day-old ball of cells may or may not be a human life, but it is human life, with its innate intent to be and grow. It's not extinguished when the stem cells are extracted; it becomes more alive than ever, producing sprawling copies of our cells. Part of the discomfort we might have towards therapeutic cloning is not that something dies, but that something lives, and can be repeated infinitely. That colonies of our flesh - identical copies of our DNA - might multiply beyond the boundaries of our bodies questions a fundamental principle governing Western self-consciousness: our uniqueness.

Twenty-six hundred years ago, when Homer wrote of the Trojan War, he was so dazzled by mortality, by the individual's irreplaceability, that he left out a critical detail: Helen had a double. "For ten years a war raged around a woman who was not actually there, for an impalpable ghost," writes the Italian author Roberto Calasso. In telling the story, Homer ignores the likely possibility that Helen never arrived in Troy, that Paris left her in Egypt and journeyed home with her phantom copy, perhaps a body-double, a woman just like her, or at least her symbolic presence. More startling than the existence of a copy of the Spartan Queen is Homer's omission of it. He did so, suggests Calasso, because it would have dissolved the reader's enchantment with Helen, "the enchantment with the unique".

This enchantment with our own uniqueness remains central to the Western imagination of the self. Therapeutic cloning not only shakes that idea; it also confronts our notion of ourselves as circumscribed individuals. In cell therapy, ‘my' cells might be used some day to heal your lungs, our separateness collapsing irrevocably. While this transgression is the territory of organ transplants and blood transfusions, cell therapies stretch it further still: it's not my kidney - a discrete organ - placed in you, or a quantifiable surge of my blood through your veins, but infinite cells. Through an indefinite fusing of bodies, what disappears are the safe, certain lines where my flesh stops and yours begins.

This sense of ourselves as separate beings, detached from others, is not universal. Throughout the Middle Ages, the carnivals which dominated European popular culture suspended the distance between bodies: revellers drank, ate, sweated, spat, fucked and shat together, merging individuals into a corporeal mass. And in many cultures today, there exists a latent connective tissue between people and their world. The Warlpiri people, in the Northern Territory, coalesce person and country, fusing the body and the environment in terms of internal physiology. "Thus, a sacred site is a womb, the odour of a person's sweat may evoke the aromatic sap of a particular species of tree, and a deposit of white clay may be said to be the semen of a Dreaming ancestor," the anthropologist Michael Jackson has observed.

On her computer screen, Teija Peura brings up a photo of a five-day-old human embryo. It takes me a beat to recognise what I'm seeing, and then I know: it's a perfect earth. It looks like the images of our planet NASA sends from space, a perfect pearly sphere. "Embryos for almost every organism look exactly the same at that stage of development," she tells me. Grown from tiny earths, we are already more a part of one another, part of our world's flesh, than we can imagine.

Kate Rossmanith
Kate Rossmanith is a non-fiction writer and lecturer in cultural studies at Macquarie University. She has been published in Best Australian Essays 2007.

Cover: February 2007

February 2007 in brief

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