A meeting at the National Academy of Sciences spotlighted the intense international debate underway over the prospect of human cloning just 1 week after the House voted to ban the procedure in the US. Several researchers argued strenuously for the adoption of animal cloning procedures to address human fertility issues.
One scientist, Brigitte Bosselier, director of Clonaid, implied that she had already accomplished the cloning of a human embryo. And an international array of scientists--including Ian Wilmut, the director of the Scottish project that cloned Dolly the sheep in 1997--stood staunchly opposed.
Panos Zavos of Lexington, Kentucky, and his partner, Dr. Severino Antinori, of Rome, have promised to begin a human cloning program "somewhere in the world" in November, with 200 infertile couples chosen from different countries. They addressed today's panel with promises to use the technology they claim to have developed in order to help desperate, infertile couples conceive. Zavos promised that he would limit his human cloning practice to people who have exhausted all other fertility treatments. One of his colleagues, Brigitte Boisselier, did not make any such promises. "I do believe it's a fundamental right to reproduce the way you want," she said. "If you want to reproduce yourself by cloning, you have the right."
Dr. Peter Mombaerts, a neurobiologist at Rockefeller University, says he is not opposed to therapeutic cloning, but he is opposed to Zavos and others going ahead with their plans to clone human embryos for reproductive purposes. He says that reproductive cloning is too dangerous an enterprise and would be a "horror show" if undertaken. Mombaerts attended the meeting in Washington and spoke about his work in the field of therapeutic cloning in mice.
At the meeting, he spoke about mouse cloning as an advocate of what he calls "therapeutic cloning"--that is, cloning for research into therapeutic techniques, as opposed to "reproductive cloning," which would be cloning for the creation of full-term human babies. Stem cell research would fall under the purview of therapeutic cloning. Obviously, Mombaerts says, Dr. Pavos and his colleagues would have us believe that reproductive cloning is in fact therapeutic, since it addresses fertility problems.
Mombaerts says he does not believe that scientists are at all ready to prevent and screen for potential problems in cloned fetuses.
At the same time, he thinks that we should not hurry to make laws banning human cloning altogether, since stem cell research and other therapeutic possibilities are so promising. Instead, he thinks we should follow the example of the UK, where Parliament has passed a law allowing the cloning of human embryos but has stipulated that they not be allowed to live past 14 days, thereby shutting down the possibility of viable reproductive cloning.
Overall, Mombaerts was appalled at what he heard in the meeting from those who are advocaes of human cloning. He had expected to hear concrete and specific plans for the screening of fetuses, for example, and instead heard only vague assertions of reproductive rights.
Most people at the meeting were animal researchers, according to Mombaerts. He felt that many of the animal researchers were overstating the dangers of cloning animals in order to dissuade the advocates of human cloning. He feels that in general animal cloning is a successful enterprise--most of the clones that are actually born are normal. There are, of course, a large percentage of cloned embryos that do not get that far.
Boisellier's claim to have cloned a human embryo was not a bombshell, according to Mombaerts. She was too vague, and "didn't even show any slides," he said.
He doesn't think there have been many other instances of human cloning elsewhere in the world, yet. There was one case he remembers, in Korea, a few years ago, but the scientist did not proceed very far beyond the initil steps. The question is less a matter of technology and more a matter of bioethics and public opinion.
Mombaerts says that Zavos will probably only be able to work on the embryos in the near future, which would mean that he won't be implanting them in utero anytime soon. But, he cautioned, "We'll only hear about it when they get a healthy baby: You're not going to hear about failures." In other words, says Mombaerts, one of the reasons Zavos and his crew will not say where the experiments are being conducted is because they will be done in a place where human experiments can be botched without redress.
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