Controversial Research Moving Forward Despite Opposition
By Sean Martin
WebMD Washington Correspondent
Reviewed by Jacqueline Brooks, MBBCh, MRCPsych
Aug. 7, 2001 (Washington) -- With national concern rising over potential human cloning efforts, three investigators pursuing this controversial research pressed their case today before a special panel of scientists.
The science group, convened by the National Academy of Sciences, is meeting as it prepares a report that will recommend whether human cloning research should be delayed.
In July, the U.S. House of Representatives voted by a commanding margin to criminalize all human cloning activities, even those activities aimed only at growing cells to battle disease. President George W. Bush supports the ban, but the U.S. Senate has yet to act.
But even if cloning is banned in this country, cloning advocates say they will go ahead with the research in other locations.
Italian doctor and fertility researcher Severino Antinori, MD, and Panayiotis Zavos, EdS, PhD, director of the Andrology Institute in Kentucky, told the panel that his group is pursuing cloning for couples where the man is infertile.
"Infertility is a disability," said Zavos. "We are determined to get there." The two hope to begin cloning later this year with several hundred couples, but they are providing few details.
Antinori is famous for having helped a 62-year-old woman conceive a child. Meanwhile, however, Italian medical authorities are moving to take disciplinary action against him for his allegedly illegal cloning activities.
Also appearing before the science panel was Brigitte Boisselier, PhD, director the cloning research outfit Clonaid. She said that popular demand for cloning is "huge." Boisselier is also an official in the Raelian religious cult -- the group believes extraterrestrials created the human race and will return to earth.
Applying the general technique used by the scientists who cloned the sheep Dolly in 1996, cloning advocates would insert a person's DNA into an unfertilized egg that had its nucleus removed. The egg would then be prompted to divide, and the cells would be implanted into a woman's womb.
But scientists are worried because animal clone experiments haven't been successful enough to make it ethical to try to make copies of humans. Before successfully cloning Dolly, for example, researchers created 28 embryos that failed. Scientists today also raised concern over genetic abnormalities that cloning may cause and late abortions that may hurt women who are attempting to carry cloned fetuses to term.
Meanwhile, many questions remain unanswered -- even in apparently successful animal cloning. Cloned mice, for example, appear to have larger placentas than normal mice. What does that mean? No one knows yet.
In a fierce exchange with Zavos, Rudolf Jaenisch, MD, a biology professor at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology Whitehead Institute in Cambridge, told the Kentucky researcher, "You probably don't realize how difficult these experiments are. You are missing the crucial point."
But Zavos maintained that problems with animal clones are unlikely in humans, saying that problems with animals often resulted from poor studies and research techniques. Zavos added, "If we cannot do it right, we will not do it."
Peter Mombaerts, head of the developmental biology lab at Rockefeller University, suggested, however, that fears about human cloning might be overblown. "I am not afraid of an 'attack of the clones,'" he said, noting that most mouse clones have been normal.
But the American Society for Reproductive Medicine today reiterated it opposition to any attempt to clone humans.
"Despite the assertions of progress by some self-proclaimed cloning experts, there is no scientific evidence to justify an attempt to clone a human being," the group said in a statement. The group added, "We are also deeply concerned about recruiting patients to participate in these efforts. Infertility can be an emotionally devastating disease. Any effort that offers false hope to these patients is irresponsible and unethical."