Cloning's nothing new in Lithuania

  • 1999-03-04
  • Rokas M. Tracevskis
VILNIUS - Two years ago, sensational headlines in international newspapers about the cloning of Dolly the sheep caused an outburst of laughter among the scientists at the Vilnius Biotechnology Institute. They say it was not a sensation to them.

"We could clone a man if somebody would give us the proper financing and order," said Kestutis Sasnauskas, head of the institute's laboratory. "But I don't see any need for that. There are moral problems in that if one understands man as a creature of God. Cloning man's organs would be an easier task from a moral point of view."

Sasnauskas said that cloning of live creatures is nothing new, and it could be the next big scientific industry for Lithuania.

"A frog was cloned some 20 or 30 years ago. The papers made no sensation out of it. Scientists learned to clone identical plants already some 100 years ago. Dolly the sheep was made a hero because people understood that it was the last step toward the cloning of man," Sasnauskas said.

The Biotechnology Institute works with the cloning of genes and is the only such institute in Central or Eastern Europe.

"What does it mean? Well, for example, we can take a gene from a man and put it into a sheep. This sheep would start producing milk with human albumen which is important in medicine," Sasnauskas said.

The institute cooperates closely with the gene cloning firms Fermentas and Biofa, both based in Vilnius. They produce ferment solutions for the cloning of genes.

Fermentas'products are used in thousands of laboratories around the world. It has offices in 40 countries and established joint ventures in the United States, Canada and Germany. Ferment solutions are instruments for genetic engineering. They make it possible to cut and paste genes.

Fermentas also produces growth hormones for people with growth problems.

"Recently Biofa built its laboratory in China because it is a huge market. Lithuanian firms working in gene cloning are the only ones at such a high level in this part of the world. There were similar firms in Hungary and Russia, but they deteriorated. Lithuanians can create miracles in gene engineering," Sasnauskas said.

Vytautas Naktinis, science director of Biofa, said that it would be no problem for his firm "to change the water of the Vilnele River, surrounding the Vilnius Uzupis quarter, into beer." Sasnauskas agrees with him. "It would not be really difficult to make. But who needs it?" he asked.

Perhaps, most of the Uzupis inhabitants would not share Sasnauskas' lack of enthusiasm in this case.