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Human Cloning Project Underway to Help Infertile Couples

Almost 4 years after Dolly the sheep was "born"--the first successfully clone of an adult mammal--an international group of scientists is planning to work together to develop the first cloned human baby to help infertile couples. Panos Zavos, MD, part of the team at the Kentucky Center for Reproductive Medicine, is here to tell us more.

Zavos, who is the director of the Andrology Institute of America, which diagnoses and treats male infertility, and the associate director of the Kentucky Center for Reproductive Medicine and Invitro Fertilization in Lexington, Kentucky, says that the group is not interested in cloning alone but rather in "therapeutic cloning technology," which is cloning for a medical purpose. Scientifically, there isn't a difference, but it's important to him to make this distinction because of all of the ethical concerns about cloning humans. He says that the objective of this project is to help infertile couples.

Zavos says that he feels that this project should be an international effort, not just the work of one scientist or one country. Basically, he feels that scientists are very close to creating a human clone and that a team should be organized to do it in a responsible way. Zavos says that otherwise this could create a huge problem for the world if it is not done in a responsible manner.

Zavos says that technology that aids people's ability to reproduce should be made available to them. It is a human right to be able to reproduce. But Zavos says that this technology will probably not become available for every individual. There will be restrictions. He expects that only couples who can't have children any other way will be allowed to use the technology.

According to Zavos, the group hopes to have guidelines agreed upon that will allow the first embryo transfer into a woman within 1 year. He says that the group needs to develop quality control before the first embryo transfer. They want to make sure that they are transferring embryos that do not have abnormalities. The ability to create and detect healthy embryos is one of the most difficult tasks they are facing, Zavos says.

The project was announced by Severino Antinori, MD, an Italian fertility expert, who will be heading the project, and Zavos. The announcement came just days after British lawmakers approved human cloning for "medical purposes."

Since Dolly the sheep was cloned in Scotland in 1997, cows, pigs, mice, and other animals have been successfully cloned.

Cloning is a process that creates a genetic duplicate of an individual. This doesn't mean that the offspring will look exactly like the parent, but it will have the same genes. In order to clone, scientists start with an egg cell. They remove the egg's DNA, then insert DNA or a whole cell from an adult animal. A mammary cell from a 6-year-old ewe helped produce Dolly, but skin and other adult cells have also been used. The egg cells divide and grow into an embryo. The emryo is transferred to a surrogate mother and grown to term, just like human test tube babies are produced at fertility clinics.

It took 277 attempts to clone Dolly: Only 29 embryos could be transferred to a surrogate mother. A single one grew to term and was born as Dolly.

Last Friday, President George W. Bush spoke about his objection to federal funding for research that uses tissue from aborted fetuses. Scientists are concerned that he may try to block plans to fund fetal and embryo cell research, which potentially could lead to cures for diabetes, Parkinson's disease, and other illnesses.

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