First human clone bid planned
By CNN's Graham Jones
WASHINGTON (CNN) -- A group of European and U.S. researchers say they will begin efforts to clone a human being in November, with 200 couples volunteering to participate in the attempt.
Italian professor Severino Antinori and U.S. researcher Panos Zavos are set to unveil their plans -- backed by extensive private funding -- before the National Association of Sciences in Washington on Tuesday. But critics say science is not yet ready to begin experimenting with human cloning.
Italian medical authorities have warned Antinori risks losing his right to practice in Italy if he presses ahead with his human cloning experiment. And Zavos said opposition in the United States means the effort will have to be conducted elsewhere. Nevertheless, "We do intend to do this, and we do intend to do it right," Zavos told CNN.
Zavos and Antinori plan to begin transferring DNA from the nuclei of living cells into human eggs in November to create a human embryo, which would be implanted into a woman's uterus. Zavos said their methodology would be safe with genetic screening of the embryos.
The Italian medical association has already launched disciplinary action against Antinori for his stated plans, which would also violate a Council of Europe convention prohibiting human cloning that came into force in March. Italy's medical code stipulates that medical experimentation is allowed only for the prevention and correction of medical problems.
But Antinori, Director of the Rome's International Associated Research Institute, told Reuters news agency: "You can't put up the barriers on therapeutic cloning.
"Cloning will help us put an end to so many diseases, give infertile men the chance to have children. We can't miss this opportunity."
Antinori said he would use his speech on Tuesday to attack a sweeping ban on human cloning approved by the U.S. House of Representatives last week.
The doctor is no stranger to controversy. His Rome fertility clinic produced a 62-year-old mother of a baby in 1994. Two years he later helped a 59-year-old British unmarried mother to have twins.
But leading fertility experts say that human cloning still presents a high risk of miscarriage, stillbirth or producing a disabled child. It took 277 attempts to produce the first cloned sheep, Dolly.
Professor Art Caplan, from the University of Pennsylvania, said the clone bid should not be carried out because of the safety implications.
"If you look at the carnage associated with animal cloning there is probably a ratio of about 290 dead embryos for every one that goes anywhere," he said.
"Dr. Zavos and his group have been kind of the high-flying, showbiz operators of cloning. If you look at the animal work that's been done, and the people who really know this procedure of cloning -- that is, veterinarians who try it in animals -- the procedure is just not safe," he said.
Though critics have warned that attempts to clone animals have resulted in a high rate of ill or deformed clones, Zavos said, "We intend to do it right or not do it at all." He said the couples are aware of the risks involved.
"They are willing to take the chance," Zavos, a former University of Kentucky professor, told CNN. "They know that the chances are not even good for them to get pregnant, but that's life. So they are willing to be the guinea pig, so to speak. Of course, we don't look at them that way."
Anti-abortion groups are outraged by their plans, and Antinori has said he may be forced to work in a remote country or even on board a ship moored in international waters.
The technique is similar to the one used to produce Dolly the sheep and involves injecting cells from the infertile father into an egg, which is then implanted in the mother's uterus.
The resulting child would have the same physical characteristics as his father and infertile parents would not have to rely on sperm donors. Most of the males in the volunteering couples are infertile.
Washington's human cloning conference on Tuesday comprises a joint panel of the U.S. National Academies' Committee on Science, Engineering Public Policy and the Board of Life Sciences.
It will discuss the scientific, medical and ethical issues involved in human cloning, and also look at the confusion outside the scientific community on the differences between human cloning and embryonic stem-cell research.
Ethical and religious groups argue Antinori's team and other cloning researchers are trying to "play God."
Antinori said he would argue in Washington that cloning is not a religious question," adding that President Bush was only against cloning because "he listens to the Pope."
The U.S. House of Representatives voted July 31 to ban all human cloning. And last week, Bush said human cloning presented profound moral issues and said he welcomed the approval of congressional ban as "a strong ethical statement."
"We must advance the promise and cause of science but do so in a way that honours and respects life," Bush said.
Meanwhile, European pro-life groups on Monday predicted cloning will eventually be legalised despite their objections.
Professor Jack Scarisbrick, British national director of Life, said there was "no doubt whatsoever" reproductive cloning would eventually become legal in the UK.
"The pressures will be great. When people hear a story about couples who have lost a child and want to replace it, they will consent to it, inevitably," he said.
Britain's House of Lords voted earlier this year to legalise only the cloning of human embryos for therapeutic, or research purposes, a move praised by Antinori.
The Vatican holds that no human being should be denied the fundamental right to be conceived and born the natural way and says human cloning is "grotesque." Antinori said: "Cloning creates ordinary children. They will be unique individuals, not photocopies of individuals."
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