Prompted by huge media attention given to last weekend's announcement in London by U.S. fertility specialist Dr. Panos Zavos that he has implanted a cloned embryo in a 35-year-old woman, prominent reproductive biology experts said they were dismayed at repeatedly having to respond to such claims.
"Over the past two years such announcements have grabbed headlines, despite the fact that none of those involved have produced a shred of evidence to substantiate their assertions," the scientists wrote in an open letter to media editors sent out Wednesday.
Cloning claims intensified in November 2002, when Italian fertility specialist Severino Antinori asserted that three women had been impregnated with cloned embryos and that the births were due in January 2003. The due date came and went.
Then in December 2002, Clonaid, a company founded by the leader of a religious sect that believes space aliens created life on Earth, announced the first cloned baby had been born. The group later claimed it had produced five babies through cloning. The company reneged on promises to prove the claim through DNA testing, fueling speculation that the whole thing was a hoax.
The claim by Zavos, a fertility doctor from Kentucky, is the latest to surface.
"Despite the lack of evidence forthcoming on each occasion, we are still expected to respond every time a bogus claim is made," the experts said.
Chris Higgins, director of the clinical sciences center at Imperial College in London, said that while journalists did their best to challenge these scientists about why they choose to go public before submitting their work to the scrutiny of other scientists in the usual way, "the very fact that the story achieved such prominence will have suggested that this is mainstream work."
While they acknowledged that the story of the first cloned human would be of huge public interest, the scientists appealed to those in the field of journalism to maintain a respect for evidence.
By ignoring the well-established processes for scrutinizing new scientific developments and making invalidated announcements to the media, "these individuals have shown that they are more interested in publicity than advancing science," the letter said. "We appeal to those making the decisions about the priority given to these stories to wait until real evidence appears before providing these individuals with such a prominent platform in future."
Signatories of the letter include several fertility and genetics pioneers; a scientist involved with the cloning of Dolly the Sheep; a former chief British government scientific adviser; the head of the government's medical research unit; and the president of the Royal Society, Britain's academy of science.
In a related move, Royal Society President Lord May of Oxford called for "cowboy cloners" to be outlawed in every country. He made the call in an article published in the official magazine of the World Economic Forum's annual meeting, which starts Wednesday in Davos, Switzerland.