The Race to Make a Human
Dr Martin Brookes
May 2003, Channel 4
The race is on to clone the first human being. Forget about all the moral, legal and ethical hurdles that might stand in the way, there is pride, fame and serious money at stake. And there are at least three strong competitors who seem more that willing to go the full distance – Severino Antinori, Panayiotis Zavos and the Clonaid organisation. It's turning out to be a brutal battle, science red in tooth and claw. Normal rules of decorum and decency have been temporarily suspended as the key players fight it out among themselves, trading insults and deceits. Each one hides behind their own veil of secrecy, occasionally stepping out from behind the curtain to talk about themselves at length on television. It would be a sordid spectacle if it weren't such great entertainment. This is cloning showbiz style.
The race never had an official start, but if you're looking for origins then we need to go back to 5 July 1996 and the birth of that sheep. Dolly, lest we forget, was the first ever successful clone of an adult mammal. Her creators, at the Roslin Institute in Edinburgh, had taken a cell from a six-year-old sheep and used it as the starting point for an entirely new life. The cell's DNA was transplanted into an egg cell from which the DNA had been removed. That egg, with its new package of six-year-old DNA, was zapped with electricity to jump start its development and the embryo was then implanted into a surrogate mother to continue its growth. Four months later, out popped Dolly.
This, basically, is what our competitors are hoping to achieve with humans – taking a cell from someone's body and turning it into a fully grown clone. So far it's been done in mice, goats, cats, pigs and cattle, as well as sheep. But in each case it's turned out to be an extremely hit and miss procedure that can carry serious risks to the health of both the clone and the surrogate mother. None of this seems to phase any of our competitors though, who all remain confident of success.
Lane one – Clonaid
The wacky folk at Clonaid have already claimed victory in the cloning race. Last year, they announced that a human clone had been born and that more were on the way. Unfortunately, evidence to back up the claim was not forthcoming. Founded in 1997, Clonaid is an unlikely business venture. The company offers a range of services designed to appeal to anyone with cloning concerns, a taste for immortality and lots of cash. For a mere US$50,000, for example, you can have a Clonaid representative come round to your house and take a sample of your cells (the raw material from which any new clone is made). Adored pets are also catered for – Clonaid's unique Clonapet service promises the cloning of a deceased family pooch.
Clonaid's founder is Claude Vorilhon, a middle-aged Frenchman who now goes by the name of Rael. This ex-racing car driver is the leader of the Raelians, a religious cult which believes, among other things, that humans were created through genetic engineering by a race of extra-terrestrials. Despite his ability to make the far-out ramblings of the late psychedelic guru Timothy Leary seem like sound common sense, Rael and his Clonaid chums have biologists and money on their side.
Their aspirations seem unbounded. Physically cloning an individual is merely phase one of the grand Raelian plan. Phase two is the instantaneous cloning of an individual into a fully grown 18-year-old. While phase three, the final stage, is to map the brain and download an individual's consciousness and personality into the clone. Quite how Clonaid plan on achieving this ambitious project is unclear, but Rael seems certain of the ultimate goal. 'Cloning will enable mankind to reach eternal life,' he declares proudly from the Clonaid website. Ah yes, but let's not get ahead of ourselves here. There is still the small matter of phase one, of actually getting a human clone out into the open. Clonaid claim they've already done this, but until they stop being so sheepish about their evidence, few will believe them. It's far too early to claim victory. The race to clone is still alive.
Lane two – Dr Severino Antinori
Like Clonaid, Italian fertility expert Severino Antinori is no stranger to unsupported cloning claims, or to controversy. Antinori first hit the headlines back in 1994 when he enabled a 62-year-old woman to have a child. Now he wants to help infertile people have children by taking cells from their bodies and turning them into human clones. Hundreds of couples, he claims, have already signed up to his cloning odyssey.
Last year, after being primed with a statement from Antinori's team that 2002 would be the year of the clones, the world's media waited expectantly for news. In fact 2002 turned into something of an annus horriblis for the man who likes to be called Dr Miracle. We were told that women were pregnant with cloned embryos, but comprehensive proof of their existence has never been produced.
Lane three – Dr Panayiotis Zavos
With question marks hanging over the credibility of both Clonaid and Antinori's claims, the spotlight shifts to the third in our triumvirate of compulsive cloners. Dr Zavos has a 10-cell cloned human embryo on ice, all ready and raring to go for implantation into a surrogate mother. His work seems bona fide as it has been filmed by Channel 4 Television and published in an online scientific journal, Reproductive BioMedicine. This represents the most credible evidence so far that a newborn clone may be on the way.
Zavos is a one-time associate of Antinori, so he knows all about the competition. The two men were comrades in cloning until a breakdown of trust led to a split last year. Now Zavos is going it alone, and he's clearly determined to be the first past the finishing post. If you're in any doubt over his desire to be a winner then take a spin around his website for an eye-popping ride into the Zavos psyche. A string of yellow rosettes flutter in the breeze as Zavos wisely informs us that 'Being first is what it's all about.' Like some prize stud at the county fair, Zavos presents himself as the best in show.
He's proud of his achievements and he's not embarrassed to tell us about them. In 1986 he participated in the first IVF birth in the state of Kentucky. He is the president and CEO of Zavos Diagnostics Laboratories Inc., a corporation that markets infertility products and technologies. He is also founder of SpermRUs, a company that promises 'semen analysis in the comfort of your own home.' He has been on television a lot and met some quite famous people, and he has mountains of photographs to prove it.
Clearly this man is driven, perhaps to the point of obsession. Self-doubt, you feel, is not something that occupies much space in the Zavos mindset. A banner headline at the top of his home page flashes up the portentous words 'First Human Cloned Embryo: The Time is Near!' If success is reflected in self-confidence then Dr Panayiotis Zavos may well be the man who brings the first human clone into the world.
Zavos is not the kind of person to be inconvenienced by the legalities of cloning and he has carefully avoided revealing the locality of his research. But it's biology, not ethics that may yet prove to be the biggest barrier across his path to fame and fortune. Cloning technology is still in its infancy and safety issues remain a key concern. Indeed, if a UK or US authority regulated Zavos' work, his human experiment would almost certainly be banned until animal studies could demonstrate that cloning is a low risk procedure. On the contrary, animal studies, so far, have shown that cloning is a horribly risky affair.
Zavos, naturally enough, is prone to emphasizing those cloning studies that paint a slightly rosier picture of the health risks associated with cloning. But in truth, the overall picture is confused. More comparative studies are needed on cloned and normal births before informed assessments can be made about the health risks specifically linked to being a clone. To date, the only study in this area has been with mice, and suggests that clones do die younger than their normal counterparts. Although the cloned mice seemed active and healthy in their youth, they soon began to show much higher rates of pneumonia, liver disease and cancer. After 800 days, 83% of the cloned mice had died compared with only 23% of the controls.
Will anyone win?
The potential health of a human clone is one thing, but what about the chances of getting a clone to full term in the first place? Since Dolly, animal clones have become fairly commonplace, but one group of mammals remains conspicuously absent from the cloning club, and it's not through want of trying. Nobody, so far as we know, has managed to produce a full-blown clone of our closest evolutionary relatives, monkeys and apes.
A recent study on rhesus monkeys suggests that there may be good biological reasons why primates (and that includes us) are such awkward subjects for cloning. In rhesus monkeys it turns out that proteins crucial to cell division are lost with the nucleus when a primate egg is being prepared to receive its donated DNA. These proteins are present in other types of mammals, but they tend to be more evenly dispersed throughout the egg so that the consequences of removing the nucleus are not so drastic.
It would be naïve to think that results from rhesus monkeys are necessarily a template for ourselves. It would also be premature to assume that current barriers to primate cloning are insurmountable. Identifying and understanding difficulties is always the first stage in overcoming them. In time, the efficiency and reliability of cloning technology is bound to improve. Meanwhile Clonaid, Antinori and Zavos continue to jostle along, side by side in their own private cloning race.
Roslin Institute, Edinburgh
Advanced Cell Technology
Pondering the Ethics and Science of Stem Cells
Primer on ethics and human cloning
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