Cloned baby in the dark

Rumour and secrecy hampers response to report of human clone.

A dearth of information surrounding claims that a woman is pregnant with the first cloned baby is stifling informed scientific judgement or debate. Second-hand reports and rumours highlight a factual vacuum under which a controversial cloning project is proceeding.

Last week, fertility doctor Severino Antinori revealed to Gulf News journalist Kavitha Davies that one of his patients is eight weeks pregnant with a cloned embryo. Since then, his clinic and that of his collaborator Panos Zavos at the Andrology Institute of America in Lexington, Kentucky, have refused to confirm or deny the report to the majority of the world’s media.

But Giancarlo Calzolari of Italian newspaper Il Tempo reports that Antinori confirmed the pregnancy to him. Calzolari told Britain’s Daily Telegraph that the procedure was carried out in a Muslim country and that Antinori has sufficient funds to achieve his goal.

Such inconsistencies are typical of the information available on Antinori and Zavos’ contentious programme to clone a human embryo, which they announced last year. How they recruit women to their programme, where the procedures are carried out, and how the plan is funded remain shrouded in mystery.

Without scientific data or publications, scientists are unable to judge the authority of Antinori’s assertions. However, the community widely condemns attempts to carry out cloning for reproductive purposes, because of potential health risks to the embryo.

“They see it as harmful to the promise of their work in biomedicine,” says Tony Perry of Advanced Cell Technologies, a biotechnology company based in Worcester, Massachusetts. Last year, the company announced that it had cloned human embryos to the six-cell stage, but with the aim of creating disease treatments.

What Antinori has attempted or achieved is ambiguous. The technique used to transfer nuclei from an adult cell to an egg stripped of its own DNA is difficult to carry out, even for those with experience, explains Perry. “I am still unaware of a single report by either Zavos or Antinori on nuclear transfer in any species, let alone to produce offspring,” he says.

The furore began at a conference in the United Arab Emirates organized by an intellectual body called the Zayed Centre for Coordination and Follow-up. At the meeting, Antinori spoke generally about his aims and arguments for human cloning for infertile couples.

Antinori revealed that cloning programmes are under way in China and Russia, says Davies, but only spoke of the pregnancy after the meeting, when she questioned him directly. Members of the public, officials and scientists attended the meeting, but no international cloning experts were present.

Human reproductive cloning is banned in the United Kingdom and many other countries. Like a scientific outlaw, this leaves Antinori to pursue his controversial goals in countries that lack such legislation.

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HELEN PEARSON © Nature News Service

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