Future

20 Years After Dolly, The Temptation To Clone Humans

Though the technology now exists to clone humans, and mercenaries are at the ready if allowed, most of the mainstream geneticist community points to other ways to get life-saving stem cells.

Exhibition in Tokyo, Japan
Yann Verdo

PARIS â€" It's been almost 20 years since the work of Scottish scientists Ian Wilmut and Keith Campbell led to the birth of Dolly the sheep, the world's first cloned mammal. News of the breakthrough rippled like a shockwave, provoking both enthusiasm and outrage. The biggest concern? That we might do the same with humans.

The European Council hastened to amend its Convention for the Protection of Human Rights and Dignity of the Human Being with regard to the Application of Biology and Medicine, prohibiting "any intervention seeking to create a human being genetically identical to another human being alive or dead."

In the two decades that followed, many other mammals were conceived through cloning, to such an extent that the South Korean company Sooam, created in 2006, now offers wealthy dog owners the chance to clone their pets after their deaths â€" for $100,000.

But humans themselves seemed sheltered from it, until now. Not so much because of ethical reasons, but because of technical ones. Geneticists hit a brick wall every time they tried to make such a "nuclear transfer" into a human being.

Their goal was not for a human Dolly to be born, which was forbidden all over the world after Wilmut and Campbell's experiment, but to obtain embryos that they'd allow to develop in vitro for a few days so they could be turned into stem-cell reserves. This so-called "therapeutic" cloning, authorized in various countries (Britain, United States, Japan, South Korea, etc. but not France) seemed out of reach for laboratories.

What was once impossible ...

That's no longer the case. A few weeks ago, Chinese doctor Xu Xiaochun said some things that would send shivers down anybody's spine. He is CEO of Boyalife, a company that has invested $31 million in a Tianjin factory to produce 100,000 cloned cattle embryos per year to meet Chinese demand. "The technology is already there," Xu said. "If human cloning is allowed, I don't think any other company will be in a better position than Boyalife to make it happen."

He didn't stop there. "Unfortunately," he continued, "the only way to have a child currently is to have it be half its mom, half its dad. Maybe in the future you have three choices instead of one. You either have 50-50, or you have a choice of having the genetics 100% from the dad or 100% from the mom."

Wow.

Strangely, Xiaochun's words went relatively unnoticed, as did a 2013 report by an American geneticist named Shoukhrat Mitalipov, from the University of Oregon, who succeeded in obtaining a human embryo through cloning that he allowed to develop in vitro for six days (until the blastocyst stage) before taking stem cells from it. His experiment was successfully reproduced a year later by two other teams.

Dolly, cloned ... then taxidermied â€" Photo: Mike Pennington/National Museums of Scotland, Edinburgh

One of the "tricks" that made this result possible was immersing the ovum in a bath of caffeine, which is indeed believed to block the cell-division process in a phase that increases the chances of a successful cloning.

The unknown

Nobody knows for sure what would have become of these human embryos had they been implanted inside a surrogate mother â€" whether they would have developed with abnormalities, resulted in miscarriage or made it to term but with mental or physical disabilities. Or, like Dolly, would they have become perfectly "healthy" newborns, with the caveat of having the same genetic makeup as another human being?

Despite the chilling, if not entirely groundless statements (the technology does exist) of Chinese entrepreneurs, the geneticist community doesn't seem to show great interest in the recent experiments of Shoukhrat Mitalipov and his followers.

Alain Fischer, a professor at the College of France and founding member of the genetic disease institute Imagine, brushes the issue aside with a sweep of his hand. "This whole issue has been null and void since the discovery of iPS cells," he says.

Developed in 2006 by Japanese scientist Shinya Yamanaka (who was awarded the 2012 Nobel Prize), iPS cells have revolutionized cellular therapy, which had been confined to embryonic stem cells. Now that there's another way that is technically simpler and ethically preferable to obtain stem cells, why bother creating embryos through cloning? Especially since supernumerary embryos are in large supply.

Hervé Chneiweiss, of the French Institute of Health and Medical Research (INSERM), says 170,000 of them are currently kept frozen in France alone, "more than enough to cover the population's needs in terms of embryonic stem cells."

But Chneiweiss believes human cloning enthusiasts aren't so much targeting ill people as the larger and more lucrative market of women who want to bear children at an older age â€" for example, after they've had a good career start. As they get older, they become less and less fertile. If they haven't found a partner by the time they could still give birth, Mitalipov's technique would allow them to have a nucleus sampled that could later be transferred into the oocyte of a younger woman.

This is also the opinion of Arnold Munnich, co-director of Imagine with Alain Fischer, who stresses how much he disapproves of colleagues who are pursuing human cloning. "People are waiting for us cure their children, or at least to find out what they're suffering from," he says before taking a dig at Mitalipov. "They don't concern themselves with the flights of fancy of Oregon-based researchers."

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Society

Pomp And Pirouettes: When Ballet Stars Bid Farewell

On June 11, the prima ballerina Eleonora Abbagnato bid farewell to the Paris Opera, under the gold roof of the historic Palais Garnier. It's an obligatory passage for Parisian ballet dancers of a certain age, a moment that is often happy, always dreaded and sometimes salutary.

Ballerina Eleonora Abbagnato performing at her adieux
Eleonora Abbagnato Official Instagram Account
Cecilia Delporte


PARIS — With one last look at Chagall's enchanting fresco, at the teachers who watched her grow up, at the stage that saw her blossom, Eleonora Abbagnato took her final bow. Never has a star ballerina's farewell been so dramatic, as her big exit was postponed by three cancellations due to a strike, and then the pandemic.

"I'm always positive, I think that destiny does things well," she says in her dressing room a few days before her "adieu." "I knew this evening would eventually take place!" This artist, who wanted to model her last dance on Le Parc by Angelin Preljocaj, ended up dazzling the crowd in a tribute to Roland Petit, which nicely echoed her career.

"He is someone I knew at the age of 10, so it was important to me to perform a ballet by this choreographer. The last time I danced Young Man was for Nicolas Le Riche's farewell, I was four months pregnant! It all began with Roland, and it all ends with him." The ballerina has lost none of her taste for the stage, but there are traditions that forge an institution: At the age of 42, each Opera dancer must leave the premises with a final au revoir to the public and the company.

"It's probably less painful than in other foreign companies, especially Anglo-Saxon ones, where there is no age limit but you are summoned to be told that you are no longer in the shape you were when you started out," says the former star Agnès Letestu. But how will this particular evening be remembered, as a rite of passage or the beginning of a new life? "The farewell is both a moment of extraordinary love with the hall, the orchestra pit, the backstage area ... and at the same time the turning of a page in the history of this institution. Even if the phoenix always rises from its ashes through the appointment of a new star," says Brigitte Lefèvre, the Paris Opera's dance director from 1995 to 2014.

No faux pas when choosing the last dance

This uniquely talented artist deserves the same exceptional ceremony created for the departure of Elisabeth Platel in 1999 and Carole Arbo two years later, which was televised for the very first time. For these kinds of events, the star's personal life comes into play — family members are present in the room, children occasionally come on stage. A perfectly choreographed protocol is followed to a tee, mixing various speeches with the arrival of the Minister of Culture; sometimes a special distinction from the Order of Arts and Letters is awarded. Moments of grace are sprinkled throughout the evening, such as the improvised dance between Aurélie Dupont — the director of dance at the time — and the departing star Marie-Agnès Gillot. The festivities continue into the night, charged with excitement and emotion.

These farewells are planned two or three years in advance when the time comes for the dance director to curate the future program. Aurélie Dupont, like Brigitte Lefèvre before her, likes to ask the star which ballet they prefer as their parting performance and which partners should accompany them.

These are intense moments sometimes experienced as mourning.

"There are some dancers who don't want to say goodbye because they don't like it, because the program doesn't suit them or because they don't feel fit enough," says Agnès Letestu. "I wanted to leave the Paris Opera with La Dame aux Camélias. I had talked to Brigitte Lefèvre about it. Except my farewell was scheduled before the ballet was programmed, so I had to find another one, but I did not agree. So I proposed to her to come back and dance it one month after I left the company, which was quite unusual."

Among the most requested works are the legendary ballets Giselle and L'Histoire de Manon. "The stars like to start with love stories that end badly. Everyone wants a ballet with real drama, in two or three acts, rather than a little pas de deux," says Aurélie Dupont. Dupont's first choice, La Dame aux Camélias, had already been scheduled two years earlier for the farewell of Agnès Letestu, so she settled on Manon. This work, heavy with meaning, was Dupont's big return to the stage after a serious knee injury in 1998, when she feared she could no longer dance.

Eleonora Abbagnato performing her final "adieux" at the Paris Opera

Like going to the guillotine

As for the brilliant Karl Paquette, it was with Cinderella — a ballet dear to his heart — that he retired at the Opéra Bastille, Paris' second opera house while many dancers prefer the old charm of the more famous Palais Garnier. "The story is funny, the ballet very narrative — one of the most beautiful successes of Nureyev. I loved the golden costume, the scenic effects, the finale of the grand pas de deux. The strongest moment was my entrance on stage in Act II to great applause, even as the musicians continued to play," he recalls.

These are intense moments sometimes experienced as mourning, like when Marie-Agnès Gillot cried heavily before her final step onto the stage. On that fateful day, Agnès Letestu says she felt a very special sensation, strengthening her senses, from her vision to her hearing. "Everything was multiplied tenfold," says Letestu who, a few months earlier, had the feeling of going to the guillotine. "I was very stressed four months before, I was afraid of hurting myself and not being able to dance, of not being up to it, of not enjoying every moment, of crying," says Aurélie Dupont, whose farewell was finally a calming moment. "I especially remember the applause, people were shouting, standing — it lasted more than 20 minutes. And this love is only for you."

I couldn't let myself be overwhelmed by emotion!

Nicolas Le Riche, now director of the Royal Ballet of Stockholm, evokes a "very strong feeling of corporation, of belonging to an institution that we celebrate at the same time." He was the only artist to bid farewell not to a ballet, but to a "special evening" of total freedom, mixing pieces like L'Après-midi d'un faune by Nijinsky and Béjart's Le Boléro. On stage, tributes were paid in his honor by prestigious guests such as singer Matthieu Chedid and actor Guillaume Gallienne.

"I found this repertoire, which transcended the ages, very moving. I received a magnificent note from Nijinsky's daughter. It's an evening where everyone is allowed to be moved and to live these emotions, except the person who is leaving. I couldn't let myself be overwhelmed by emotion, otherwise, I would have taken a step on stage and collapsed!" he recalls. How long did it take him to prepare such a spectacle? "I feel like answering in the manner of Coco Chanel, who made her hat in two scissor strokes. 'But it only took you two minutes?" says a disappointed customer. 'No, Madam, it took me a whole life," she replies. The same way I drew on all that I lived through," says the dancer.

Group photo of Paris Opera dancers in white tutus dancing in front of the Palais Garnier, with placards in protest of the French government's plan to overhaul retirement age

Paris Opera dancers perform in front of the Palais Garnier to protest the French government's plan to overhaul retirement age — Photo: Maxppp/ ZUMA

To each their own swan song

While Laëtitia Pujol hesitated a long time before making her farewell, hoping to leave discreetly, others end up with departure full of pomp and circumstance, sometimes to their surprise. "It's a moment you think about all the time without really thinking about it. I certainly wasn't looking forward to it and wanted something intimate. This was the opposite," says Karl Paquette. "The director of the Paris Opera at the time, Stéphane Lissner, wanted to leave on the symbolic day of December 31. "I was doubly pressured because the farewell was broadcast in the cinema, and each of my movements was immortalized. On the last day, you are in a particular state of conditioning because you are saying goodbye to 25 years of career and nearly 42 years of life. You have to protect yourself."

When the farewell came, it was a relief.

Only Benjamin Pech experienced his farewell, an evening in February 2016, as a liberation. And for good reason: "I had a hip injury in 2014. I was diagnosed with rapid degenerative arthritis. To remedy it, I needed a hip replacement. My farewell was scheduled for 2016, so I decided not to have the surgery and continue until then. For two years, I held on by dancing practically on one leg and had to turn to a repertoire that was no longer athletic but theatrical, with compositional roles that opened up other perspectives. Isn't a dancer above all someone who comes to deeply impact the spectator? When the farewell came, it was a relief," he says.

The star had chosen to dance alongside Sylviane, an 84-year-old spectator and one of his lifelong fans, who was present during rehearsals, but unfortunately became ill on the day of the performance. Pech took his leave on a program that included Le Parc by Preljocaj, the very piece that gave way to his injury: "I have come full circle."

Bidding farewell to the word "adieu"

Shortly after his or her performance, the future retiree must pass on their dressing room to another star, a moment that is "both very sophisticated and archaic. There are the great speeches, which say that this house will always be yours, but in reality, it becomes otherwise," says Brigitte Lefèvre. "You close the door, you leave and it's over," says Eleonora Abbagnato. But how do these artists project themselves into the future? "What is traumatic is that we are heavily drilled since we entered the dance school at 8 years old, with a professional outline where everything is already decided. How can you exist professionally when you have garnered such admiration, even fascination until now? At 42, most people are in the middle of their career, ours is coming to an end," says Benjamin Pech, who has become ballet master at the Opera of Rome, directed by Eleonora Abbagnato.

It is not a door that closes, but rather another door that opens.

While many stars go on to create or run a company, many experience a profound period of confusion. "I was secretly hoping that someone would call me for a position, that I could be of some value, but it didn't happen that way," explains Nicolas Le Riche. "I had already enrolled at Sciences Po for schooling [in management and leadership]. I had to create my own opportunities."

To remedy this uncertainty, Aurélie Dupont now offers support for company members, offering them a skills assessment and training beyond dance. In the future, Nicolas Le Riche would like the word "adieu" to be replaced by the idea of celebration. "It is not a door that closes, but rather another door that opens." Because under the gold of the Palais Garnier, the stars are eternal.


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