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Scientists Incite Protest Over Plans to Clone Human Beings

By Rick Weiss


Three maverick researchers Tuesday told an independent panel of scientists they were making progress toward creating the world’s first human clones even as a parade of renowned specialists decried the work as unethical and likely to result in dead and deformed babies.

The would-be cloners traded conflicting and sometimes combative testimonies with more than a dozen of the world’s leading reproductive scientists, making for unusually contentious exchanges in the staid auditorium of the National Academy of Sciences. The congressionally chartered organization of scientific luminaries convened the all-day gathering as part of a fact-finding enterprise that is to culminate next month with a report to Congress, which is now considering whether to ban human cloning.

Brigitte Boisselier, a chemist with Clonaid, a company linked to the obscure Raelian religious movement, which teaches that all humans are clones of aliens, said that she had begun doing experiments on cloned embryos in anticipation of a pending effort to clone a baby. But she left unclear whether the embryos she had cloned were human or animal embryos. And several scientists doubted her assertion, saying some of the tests she described have not yet been invented.

Her claim “is ludicrous, really,” said Alan Trounson, an embryologist from Monash University in Australia. Trounson was just one of several experts who periodically replaced their usual professional demeaners with open expressions of ridicule or exasperation during the meeting, which often took on a circus-like atmosphere -- featuring hoots from scientists and others in the audience.

Kentucky scientist and entrepreneur Panos Zavos and his collaborator, Italian fertility doctor Severino Antinori, said they had not yet made a cloned human embryo. But in defiance of repeated warnings from several scientists at the meeting, they said they believed the time was right to move beyond animal experiments, like those that led to the birth of Dolly the sheep, and start making cloned human embryos.

“The patients ... are willing to accept these risks,” said Zavos, who with Antinori wants to use the technique so that men incapable of having children can make genetic duplicates of themselves.

“Antinori is proposing to commit medical malpractice,” said University of Wisconsin law professor and ethicist Alta Charo.

In fact, others noted, there is no good evidence that any of the three are actually conducting cloning experiments.

Five species of animals -- sheep, mice, goats, pigs and cows -- have been produced by cloning since Dolly’s birth was announced in 1997. Cloning involves taking a single cell from an adult and fusing it with a donated egg cell whose own genes have been removed, to make an embryo that is genetically identical to the initial cell donor.