The Great Divide
Somerville's hopes have landed him in the center of a white-hot controversy. Last March he was one of fewer than 10 donors who provided skin and other body cells for the research that led Advanced Cell Technology, a biotechnology company in Worcester, Mass., to announce on Nov. 25 that it had produced the first human embryos ever created through cloning. The news immediately reignited the dormant Washington bioethics debate about cellular research. In the Senate, Kansas Republican Sam Brownback vowed to push through a delayed bill that would prohibit human cloning for the purpose of treating disease. President Bush's response was unequivocal: "The use of embryos to clone is wrong. We should not as a society grow life to destroy it."
Many scientists feel the flap is much ado about very little. They maintain that ACT's triumphant claim is exaggerated, since only three so-called embryos resulted from the 19 attempts to fuse unfertilized human eggs with cell genetic material, and none grew beyond six cells. "I gathered my [12-member] team specializing in this field, and we reviewed the findings," says Dr. John Gearhart, a professor at Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine in Baltimore. "The data is unconvincing." Certainly, ACT was unable to achieve its greater goal: the growth of healthy stem cells that, theoretically, could be used to replace diseased ones, a process known as therapeutic cloning.
Somerville himself thought long and hard about signing on as a human guinea pig. A Bush supporter and a practicing Episcopalian who serves as a senior warden at Laredo's Christ Episcopal Church, he consulted his church leadership. Beyond ethical concerns, there were personal considerations. "I have a practice in a predominantly Catholic community," he says. "People could picket my clinic." Still, Somerville is excited about his decision to participate. "This may be the greatest discovery ever in medicine," he says.
The CEO of ACT, Dr. Michael West, 48, is a friend of 16 years whom he met when both men lived in the same Houston condo complex. West was on hand last March when Somerville rolled up his pant leg and snipped a sliver of skin from his right calf. "I always liked Jud's spirit and his can-do attitude," says West, a father of four, including 2-month-old triplets. Somerville says he was told by someone close to the research team that his skin cells contributed to the cloning experiment's limited success. West will not say.
The oldest of three boys born to George Bowman, 66, a retired NASA engineer, and Patricia McMahan, 63, a clinical psychologist, Somerville attended 11 schools in 12 years. While he was in third grade, his parents divorced. Two years later, McMahan married Jack Somerville, 66, a retired pilot, whom she eventually divorced. "I had a tumultuous childhood," says Judson. He and Melanie met on a blind date at the University of Texas at Austin.
They already had Madison, and Hannah, now 11, was on her way, on the day Somerville headed to Massachusetts's Mount Wachusett to train for a triathlon. As he raced down the mountain, the front tire of his bike fell off, sending Somerville crashing into a rock wall and leaving him paralyzed from the chest down. Within three months, he was back at his hospital residency. "I went from being 6'2" to 4'8"," he says. "I got sick a lot," and notes that he missed about half a year of his training.
Melanie says she is "behind him 110 percent" in his decision to participate in and speak out about the research. But neither she nor Somerville are hanging around waiting for a miracle cure. "We live a rich, full, happy life," she says. At the Laredo pain-management clinic he opened in 1996, Somerville serves some 120 patients a week. "The accident has given me an appreciation for life," he says. "I live every day to the fullest."
Sharon Cotliar in New York City and Anne Driscoll in Worcester