|Tuesday, July 9
Updated: July 14, 1:11 PM ET
Awaiting another chip off Ted Williams' old DNA?
By Tom Farrey
They've cloned sheep, cows and rabbits, so why not Lions, Tigers and Red Sox?
"What Ted Williams had was incredible hand-eye coordination and muscular reflexes," said Dr. Lee Silver, a Princeton University molecular biologist who has written extensively on the revolution in genetic science. "Those are genetic traits. So in theory, through cloning, you could create someone who would be a step ahead of other people in becoming a great baseball player."
Key phrase: In theory. Even the most strident advocates of cloning concede that good genes are merely the building blocks in the creation of a great athlete, that only nature and nurture, working together, could have conspired to put Williams in the Hall of Fame. There's no guarantee any later-born twin of Williams would end up anywhere near Cooperstown.
But there is little doubt some would-be parents would like to work with that raw material anyway.
Harris said he had to inform the women, sadly, that he does not have the rights to any of the Williams' genetic matter, or even his sperm. For now, his reproductive service -- some question how many eggs and how much sperm he does sell -- is not involved in attempts at cloning, although down the road, if proven safe and legal, Harris said he would like to expand into that realm.
For sale: Body-tissue DNA from key member of the reigning three-time NBA champions. Donor is especially tall and strong, with a winning smile and no known diseases. Can't make a free throw to save his life, but hey, that's a nurture issue. Still manages to make enough money to put the entire population of small countries through college. Bids start at $1 million.
It's not clear what John Henry Williams plans to do with the remains of his father, which were sent to a cryonics warehouse in Scottsdale, Ariz., shortly after his death Friday. Other children in the family want their father to be cremated. They reportedly plan to file a motion this week asking a Florida judge to order the release of whatever body parts were sent to the Alcor Life Extension Foundation, where Williams is one of at least 50 "patients" whose heads or full bodies have been preserved.
Bobby-Jo Ferrell, one of Williams' daughters, told a Boston newspaper that her half-brother, John Henry, last year mused to her, "Wouldn't it be interesting if in 50 years, we could bring dad back. What if we could sell dad's DNA and there could be little Ted Williamses all over the world?"
John Henry's attorney, Eric Abel, has denied that John Henry plans to clone Williams. John Henry has declined comment on the matter.
In cryonics, a patient who is declared legally dead is injected with chemicals to reduce the cell damage from the cold temperatures necessary to store the head or full body. Then the patient is cooled to a final temperature of minus-321 degrees, and stored in a thermos-like structure.
Freezing a head costs $50,000, a full body $120,000. Those who sign up -- Alcor claims 580 people on its waiting list -- are often well-educated, technology leaders who believe that future medical and scientific developments may allow the revival of the dead. Some also contend that tiny robots will be built to repair not just the cell damage from freezing, but reverse the effects of aging.
"When you look at what medical technology is about to do, we will be able to restore people to good health," said Ralph Merkle, an Alcor board member and nano-technology expert. "I'm not talking about preserving someone to the state they were in when they were 99 and feeble, but restoring them to the health of a 20-year-old."
Asked when this service might become available, Merkle said, "At least 10 years. No more than 100."
Science fiction? So seemed space flight a hundred years ago, he counters.
Cloning, by contrast, is regarded as far more imminent. Scientists already have cloned a range of animals, and at least one company, Massachusetts-based Advanced Cell Technologies, has announced the first cloning of a human embryo. The president and CEO of that firm, Michael D. West, is also a top scientific advisor to Alcor.
"It wouldn't surprise me if tomorrow someone reported that they've gotten a woman pregnant this way," said Dr. Wayne Grody, a UCLA geneticist. "That's how close it is. It's not that hard. It's not rocket science."
Panayiotis Zavos, of Lexington, Ky., is one of the few doctors on record who wants to be the first to clone humans. He said he is only interested in helping infertile couples, but would assist John Henry Williams, if he asked, in finding an offshore group that would attempt the procedure.
"The world needs more Ted Williamses," Zavos said. "It needs more Elvises. How many happy people would there be if instead of hugging a statue of Elvis Presley, they could hug someone who looks like Elvis?"
There's nothing morally wrong with saving cells of great athletes or other high achievers, said Randolfe H. Wicker, spokesman for the Reproductive Cloning Network, a group of medical professionals and other pro-cloning activists. Like Harris, he also has received calls in recent days from people wondering if he could hook them up with some of Williams' DNA.
And therin lies one of the many uncertainties about cloning. Williams, for instance, loved playing baseball. He was highly motivated to do well, and grew up at a time when many aspects of American life -- everything from nutrition to media attention to the game's hold on the nation -- were different than today. He fought in World War II, and again in the Korean War, and rarely played against African American players. He was a product of his time.
John Henry Williams got half his father's DNA, and never did anything in baseball.
On the other hand, athletes who are identical twins -- who like clones share the same DNA -- have often performed similarly to their lookalike siblings. Skiers Phil and Steve Mahre won slalom gold and silver at the 1984 Sarajevo Olympics. Harvey and Horace Grant both have enjoyed extended careers in the NBA. Tiki and Ronde Barber both beat the long odds of playing in the NFL.
Then there's Jose and Ozzie Canseco. The former was a star in Major League Baseball while the latter spent most of his years in the minors.
"They're a great example of what genes can and cannot do," Silver said. "If genes were everything, both would have been in the majors. But there were subtle differences at play -- maybe in the womb or their upbringing or in some other element of their experience."
Or maybe in the drugs they took. But that's a different discussion.
For now, Silver advises caution for anyone thinking they can grow the next Greatest Hitter Ever.
"Williams' latter-born twin might be just a regular major-league player," he said.
Tom Farrey is a senior writer with ESPN.com. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.