Recently, an international panel of reproductive specialists and medical biologists met at the National Academy of Sciences in Washington DC. During the session, experts argued over issue of producing a human clone the exact genetic replica of a human being.
Five years ago, Dr. Ian Wilmut, a Scottish embryologist was the first to clone a mammal, a Finned Dorcet lamb named Dolly. Since then four more species of mammals have been cloned: goats, pigs, mice and cows.
According to the experts, the cloning procedure involves taking genetic material from a mammal's cell and injecting it into a female egg whose nucleus has been removed. The procedure does not guarantee successful pregnancies or healthy clones and most scientists object cloning humans. Rudolph Jaenisch, a medical engineer at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology is one of them. For him, the procedure is scientifically unsafe.
"I think, the problems, the biological problems underlying the cloning are so great, we just begin to get an inkling of how big they are," said Mr. Jaenisch. "The science clearly speaks for itself. The science speaks that this should not be done, because it is unsafe. It is so unsafe, you will produce abnormal people and I think that shouldn't be done."
However, those in favor of human cloning argue that the procedures involved are not dangerous. "I say the argument is a false one," Dr. Jaenisch stressed. "They argue despite the miss-happenings in clones of five mammalian species. It did not happen in humans, but humans are also mammals. So, I think, it's just preposterous. It's ridiculous to say that humans might be different from animals. There is no reason to assume that." Dr. Jaenisch says that the data clearly shows that human cloning is something that should not be done at this point. "I would say," he added, "that cloning humans should not happen because we know that the regulatory mechanisms, which occur normally during development, are disturbed when you clone. These are scientific facts, that the great majority of cloned animals die early or late, and if they survive post-nataly they may have defects from which they die later. And even those who are apparently normal adult clones, they are not normal. We know that by fact."
Panos Zavos, an American reproductive endocrinologist, said, "The majority of those folks like to talk about the negative things because of the way the forum is situated. They are hiding behind the science, and they are politicizing things."
Mr. Zavos, who along with Severino Antinori, an Italian fertility specialist, announced that they are teaming up to produce a human clone in the near future. In a conversation at the session, Dr. Zavos said that the success rate in cloning animals is up to 80 percent or more.
Dr. Zavos: "We have better screening techniques than they do in the animal word. We have a great deal of experience in screening embryos as we grow them in appropriate tissue culture systems." Penelope Poulou: "How much can we learn from the animals when we go about to do this procedure on humans?" Dr. Zavos: "We can learn a great deal. Now, how does that apply to the human is not known. Therefore, if you don't do it in the human, you'll never talk about the human."
Penelope Poulou: "Now, you have started the procedure already, correct?" Dr. Zavos: "Yes, we are not doing reproductive cloning right now, but we are obviously doing tissue cultures."
Dr. Zavos and his colleague take cells from donor parents and grow them in a laboratory. The next step will be to implant one of these cells to an empty human egg and to yield the first cloned embryo. Dr. Zavos announced that soon he will implant the first fertilized clone in a human womb. "2002, I would say. But, you know, it is not set in concrete," he noted.
Meanwhile, the United States House of Representatives has overwhelmingly passed a ban on human cloning, and the Senate is likely to consider a similar ban when it returns from summer recess after Labor Day.
But, Dr. Zavos says that he and Dr. Antinori will do the human cloning outside the United States, in an undisclosed European country. His announcement at the recent National Academy of Sciences meeting has left the scientific community deeply divided and disturbed.