To clone or not to clone? That question dominated a scientific conference on human cloning Tuesday in Washington, D.C. Cloning opponents hotly denounced plans by an Italian doctor to start a human cloning program.
The National Academy of Scientists in Washington convened an international panel of fertility experts and researchers. Their mission was to objectively discuss the technology of human cloning and where it may be heading.
The event took place one week after the United States House of Representatives voted a total ban on human cloning.
The focus of the gathering quickly turned to an announcement by Italian physician Severino Antinori that he planned to begin cloning humans. Dr. Antinori says he has 1,300 American couples and 200 Italian couples waiting to receive cloned embryos beginning in November. Because the Italian government is threatening to take away his right to practice medicine, Dr. Antinori says he will do the cloning in an undisclosed Mediterranean country.
Brigitte Boisselier is scientific director of Clonaid, and a cloning company which advertises on the Internet. "I do believe we have enough information to proceed and do the human cloning," she said. "The whole debate has been in the comparison between animal cloning and human cloning. And to answer those, there will be a lot of research to do, to show whether they are right are not. But the only way to do it is to produce that and to implant [a] cloned human embryo."
Human and animal cloning is performed the same way. The contents of a female egg are removed, and the nucleus of a male cell is inserted into the empty female egg. The egg is then stimulated with a faint electrical charge, which starts it dividing.
Critics of human cloning note that animal cloning has a high failure rate. Many animals are born dead or deformed. Rudolf Jaenisch, of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology co-authored an article in the journal Science. In it, he reported that that identical mice that appeared normal showed evidence of genetic mutations. Professor Jaenisch reminded cloning proponents of the finding.
"I think we at this stage we just do not know all the ins and outs and the extent of the problem that we have," he said. "And at this time to say we are looking at three different genes and then we conclude the embryo is normal, I think this is not good science."
MIT's Rudolf Jaenisch was not alone in opposing human cloning. "I would say most of the scientific community is opposed to reproductive cloning," said John Rennie is Editor in Chief for Scientific American, a magazine based in New York. "We don't know enough about cloning and the technology and what happens to the clones to probably to do it very safely," he said.
On the side of those in favor of cloning, Mr. Rennie says proponents feel it's a wonderful technology that could help millions of childless couples. "That reproductive cloning would be able to help bring more happiness into the lives of people who can't have children by other means," he said. "So, I think they feel that it would be unethical not to be moving forward with this kind of technology."
While many people oppose cloning for the purpose of human reproduction, there is a lot of support for cloning in connection with stem cell research. Stem cells are the master cells found in embryos that can be coaxed to grow into any cell in the body.
Some members of Congress and President Bush's cabinet have expressed support for government funding of such research. President Bush has yet to announce his administration's position on the issue.