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Cloning Controversy Back in the Spotlight - 2001-11-27

The announcement by a biotechnology company in the United States that it has successfully cloned a human embryo has thrust the question of cloning back into the spotlight. The development has led to renewed ethical, medical, scientific and religious debate.

The battle lines over cloning and stem cell research were drawn months, if not years, before the announcement by the Massachusetts-based company, Advanced Cell Technology, of its success in what is known as "therapeutic cloning."

Earlier this year, the U.S. House of Representatives passed legislation banning the kind of research that led to the breakthrough. But a similar bill stalled in the Senate.

President Bush Monday made clear he has not changed his mind on the subject. "This evidence today, that they are trying to achieve that objective, to grow an embryo, in order to extract a stem cell, in order for that embryo to die, is bad public policy, not only that it is morally wrong in my opinion," he said.

However, amid mounting criticism Monday, the chief executive officer of Advanced Cell Technology, Michael West, went on the defensive. In an interview on NBC's Today Show, he said these technologies are not designed to clone human beings, only cells.

"It's important to point out, we're talking about a little ball of cells that could actually sit on the point of a pin. There are no body cells of any kind, and they are blank cells. Like sperm cells and egg cells, they haven't begun to form a human yet, and those are the types of cells we're talking about using," he said.

Mr. West says his company's breakthrough was aimed not at advances in reproducing exact copies of a human being, but at finding new ways to treat life-threatening diseases, such as Parkinson's and Alzheimers.

However, Dr. Panos Michael Zavos, head of the Andrology Institute of America, says he and another researcher, Italian researcher Severino Antinori, are now very close to creating the first viable cloned human embryos that would be implanted in a female uterus.

As for criticism by the Vatican and others of stem cell research and what appears to be steady progress toward full cloning of humans, Mr. Zavos says. "The Vatican is very much out of line, as far as I'm concerned, in keeping up with the trends in today's society and today's humanity. I respect them, but they need to move on with things that benefit humanity. Religion is a tremendous asset to have, but without life, religion is nothing," he said.

John Rennie, editor-in-chief of Scientific American magazine, says cloning for reproductive purposes remains, in his words, highly dubious, with big risks. "It's all well and good for Dr. Zavos and others to say that they think people should have a right to reproduce using clone technology, but the fact is, you also have to have real concern for the well-being of the cloned children who would result from this," he said.

John Rennie says there just isn't enough knowledge yet about the long-term health of clones, in animals let alone in human beings. He says the scientific community would be comfortable with a wait of at least 10 years before any reproductive cloning of human beings is attempted.

The announcement by Advanced Cell Technology of its cloning breakthrough has prompted new criticism from cloning opponents in the United States, with calls for the U.S. Senate to pass a law banning cloning, before lawmakers end their current session.