Human clone promise attacked
By Philip Cohen Two maverick scientists have unveiled their plan to produce the first cloned human baby by the end of 2002. Tempers flared as the pair faced those opposed to cloning humans at a scientific panel in the United States. While ethical and legal issues were discussed, safety emerged as the key issue, and the scientists’ claims that they could detect abnormalities in a cloned embryo before implantation were roundly dismissed. “It sounds as if [they] are likely to proceed with cloning in humans despite animal data that raises concerns and worries about it,” says Mark Siegler, a doctor and ethicist at the University of Chicago. The panel was brought together by the US National Academy of Sciences for a report exploring the use of human cloning in basic science and medicine, such as the creation of tissues for transplant. One group led by Severino Antinori, an Italian fertility specialist, and his colleague Panos Zavos of the Andrology Institute in Kentucky formally announced plans to treat 200 couples suffering fertility problems starting in November. In a session characterised by angry exchanges with their critics, Antinori and Zavos told the panel how they intend to avoid the health problems often seen in animal clones by using cutting edge technologies such as pre-implantation genetic diagnosis which detects genetic defects, and ultrasound which can be used to monitor the development of the fetus in the womb. Antinori said his team would begin creating cloned embryos “within a month or so”. He also said he will restrict their cloning service to couples who are not able to reproduce through more conventional reproductive technologies. This could be, for example, because the man completely lacks the ability to produce sperm. “We are not perfect but we are trying to get there as perfect as we can,” says Zavos. “If we cannot do it right, we will not do it.” That assurance did little to silence their critics. Ian Wilmut of the Roslin Institute in Edinburgh, whose team created Dolly the sheep, described two animals, one sheep and one cow that appeared healthy at birth but later died from lung and immune system disorders respectively. These would have been nearly impossible to diagnosis in utero. Jay Cross, a reproductive biologist at the University of Calgary in Alberta, Canada said work by his lab showed that the genetic disregulation in clones occurs in very specific and limited tissues. So plucking a cell or two for diagnosis, as Antinori’s team described, would probably miss any defect. “This is a needle in a haystack sort of issue,” he says. “If it was possible to biopsy cells from a placenta or use diagnostic tests, why wouldn’t we be using this today to improve the outcome of the IVF procedure?” The other would-be human cloner, Brigitte Boisselier suggested her plans were more expansive and more advanced. She is a reproductive scientist at Clonaid, a company founded by the Raelian cult which believes that extraterrestrials started life on Earth and resurrected Jesus through cloning. She says that cloning should be available to anyone who wants to use the technology. She also suggested her company had already produced cloned human embryos and developed a method to screen for imprinting defects in 10 human genes. Imprints are tags on genes which some data suggests are disrupted in clones and may account for some of their health problems. A number of scientists who were clearly sceptical pushed Boisselier on her claims of a technological advance. “I don’t think that is at all possible,” says Alan Trounson of the Monash Institute. But the human cloners had little substantive to say in response to these criticisms. Instead, they tried to explain their caginess. Boisselier cited the privacy concerns of her company as her reason for withholding data, but says she hopes to publish her results soon. “I believe we know enough to proceed in human cloning,” she says. Zavos, when asked whether his work would be subjected to the normal process of peer review, said such oversight was not possible given a political atmosphere that has driven scientists to develop the technology in “clandestine” laboratories. “Are you going to arrest us or share our results?