Published Thursday, March 1, 2001, in the Herald-Leader
Professor is leaving UK over role in cloning planBy Jim Warren
HERALD-LEADER MEDICAL WRITER
A Lexington reproductive specialist who is getting worldwide press attention for his participation in a plan to clone a human child somewhere overseas says he is leaving his longtime post at the University of Kentucky.
Panayiotis Zavos confirmed that he has agreed to retire from the University of Kentucky, where he has been a professor of animal sciences in the agriculture department since the early 1980s. UK has no involvement in cloning, but Zavos said university officials were concerned by his association with such a controversial project.
``My life is too colorful for the university to handle, so we have severed our relationship,'' Zavos said. ``We did it mutually. Everybody's happy; life goes on.''
Zavos has been at the center of a whirlwind of international news coverage and debate since Jan. 25, when his longtime friend, Dr. Severino Antinori of Rome announced in Lexington that he plans to attempt a human cloning within the next year or so, probably in some Mediterranean country. Zavos is joining Antinori in an international scientific consortium to pursue the project that they say would be a therapeutic procedure only for those who can't have children any other way.
Antinori said last month that he had identified at least 10 couples interested in cloning. Zavos said they've received inquiries from ``thousands'' of others worldwide, including some in Kentucky. But no cloning will be attempted here, he said.
Antinori leads the cloning effort, but Zavos has become perhaps its most visible spokesman, interviewed by Time magazine and numerous other national and international publications and network TV news shows. When several early cloning stories identified Zavos as a UK faculty member, the university issued a statement Jan. 30 stressing that Zavos' involvement in cloning was outside his regular university duties, and that UK was prohibited from doing cloning experiments under regulations banning the use of federal funds for human cloning research.
Yesterday, UK spokesman Lloyd Axelrod said only that Zavos has retired, and that his retirement will go before the university board of trustees Tuesday to be made official. Axelrod said he couldn't discuss personnel issues in detail, but that Zavos now will have the title of ``professor emeritus.''
Zavos, however, won't be without a job. He has several outside business interests, including the Lexington-based Andrology Institute, which offers various reproductive services for couples with problems conceiving children.
Polls suggest that up to 90 percent of the American public opposes human cloning. But stopping it may be impossible. According to some reports, a religious group called the Raelians already has lined up a laboratory, scientists and volunteers to perform a cloning. Even some mainstream scientists predict that cloning eventually will be as accepted as organ transplants and in-vitro fertilization are today. And interest in the Antinori-Zavos project shows no sign of abating.
Tuesday afternoon, Zavos appeared on CNN International to debate cloning with University of Pennsylvania ethicist Arthur Caplan. Earlier in the week, a German film crew interviewed him. On Friday, Zavos leaves for New York to be interviewed by 60 Minutes. He then flies to Europe for press conferences in Athens and Cypress, before joining Antinori in Rome. About 20 scientific experts will gather there March 9 to discuss human cloning.
Zavos said that he also will visit several countries which he declined to name that are interested in being cloning sites.
``The world is on fire because of this subject,'' he said. ``We started getting calls from all over the world the day after the announcement. Now, CNN tells me it's the number one story in the world; NBC tells me it's the hottest topic there is. I'm amazed by the amount of feedback we're getting.''
Much of the feedback, though, has been negative.
Some critics argue that human cloning intrudes into an area that rightly should be left to God. Others contend that while scientists can clone sheep and other animals, the process is too unsafe for humans. Still others fear that, even if cloning worked, it would become a tool for vain people interested in copying themselves.
But Zavos, who is a Ph.D. reproductive physiologist, said that while all the scientific details haven't been resolved, cloning fears are overblown.
``The risk of malformed embryos or what-have-you can happen, if you don't know what you're doing,'' he said. ``That's what we are trying to avoid. I think the technology exists, the know-how exists. The quality controls still must be developed, which is why we are bringing together these experts.''
Debates will continue, but human cloning is inevitable, Zavos contends. He noted that at least one scientific expert has suggested that accidental human clonings already may have occurred during standard in-vitro fertilization procedures.
``This technology is going to be developed, the genie is out of the bottle and you can't put it back,'' Zavos said. ``Do we develop it as serious, dedicated scientists? Or do we let somebody else do it in some clandestine laboratory, and start cloning the wealthy and the famous and forget about people who really need this.''
Antinori initially said he would attempt a cloning within a year, but later stories have said it might be 18 months to two years away. Zavos said the exact timing is unimportant.
``This is no race for us,'' he said. ``The only thing in our mind is to carry this out in a responsible fashion and deliver a safe package for the world. This is no small undertaking.''
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