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Saturday 10 March 2001

British scientists condemn plans to clone babies

By Roger Highfield

BRITISH scientists joined the pro-life lobby and the Vatican yesterday in condemning a plan by Italian and American fertility doctors to clone babies, though they doubt that either has the expertise to carry it out.

Experts plan to spell out the dangers of human cloning in an open letter to a scientific journal. Animal research suggests that, at best, cloning could only succeed in around one attempt in every hundred, producing larger numbers of stillbirths, miscarriages, and deformed children. Half the cloned children that come to term will die late in pregnancy or soon after birth.

Prof Severino Antinori and Prof Panayiotis Zavos, an American who has collaborated on the research, said yesterday that they had refined their pool of candidate couples for the cloning project. They were speaking at a conference organised by University La Sapienza in Rome and the Italian Society for Reproductive Medicine.

Prof Antinori praised "Tony Blair's intelligent decision" to allow research into therapeutic cloning , the creation of cloned embryos to grow tissue, and said that it would aid his efforts to create a human clone within two years.

He said: "Cloning may be considered as the last frontier to overcome male sterility. Some people say we are going to clone the world, but this isn't true . . . I'm asking all of us to be prudent and calm. We're talking science. We're not here to create a fuss."

Prof Zavos said: "Dolly is here and we are next." He added that he had been flooded with emails from couples seeking to have children through cloning. "They come to us and they don't call you names, they don't cuss you, they don't say you're unethical. They said, 'Help me.' "

Human cloning projects have been announced before but these researchers are the first to have some relevant expertise. Prof Antinori is the director of the International Associated Research Institute for Human Reproduction Infertility Unit in Rome. Prof Zavos is from the Kentucky Centre for Reproductive Medicine.

However, they hardly rank in the first division of reproductive science: a literature search reveals that Prof Antinori has only a dozen or so papers to his name. Prof Zavos has published around two dozen papers, mostly in obscure journals. Neither seems to have any expertise in cloning.

Prof Antinori has already caused controversy by helping a 62-year-old woman to give birth . Lord Winston, the IVF pioneer, even flew to Rome to confront him in his modest clinic, accusing the Italian of disreputable and irresponsible conduct.

Lord Winston dismissed Prof Antinori's latest announcement as a publicity stunt. He said: "We are giving him more credibility than he deserves. I don't think he has any serious intentions and he certainly has not got the skill. This is an advertising campaign for his infertility services."

He feared that attempts to use cloning responsibly, for instance to make tissue to treat a wide range of diseases, could be brought into disrepute by Prof Antinori's plan.

When it came to treating infertile men by cloning or using donated sperm, Prof Antinori said 70 per cent of the men's partners had said they preferred cloning. The team claims to have between 600 and 700 patients who are willing to undergo cloning treatment in an unnamed Mediterranean country for his research programme, which he says could begin in October.

But Prof Alan Handyside of the University of Leeds, an IVF expert, said that he would be surprised if the patients would want to go through with cloning if they knew the dangers. Dr Harry Griffin of the Roslin Institute, where Dolly the sheep was cloned , said that cloning of animals remained a hit and miss affair, so that to press ahead with humans would be "criminally irresponsible".

Dr Griffin wondered if Prof Antinori had liability insurance and could afford to support a cloned child who was unhealthy for the rest of its life. Dr Rudolf Jaenisch of the Whitehead Institute in Cambridge, Massachusetts, said: "Serious problems have happened in all five species cloned so far, and all are mammals, so of course it's going to happen in humans. No question. You can dispose of these animals, but tell me, what do you do with abnormal humans? It's an outrageous criminal enterprise to even attempt."

Ruth Deech, the chairman of the Human Fertilisation and Embryology Authority, warned that the procedure would be illegal in Britain and should remain so.

The Vatican said the cloning proposal was "grotesque". Monsignor Mauro Cozzoli, from the Vatican Bioethics Commission, said cloning was immoral and that "every child must be born with his or her genetic individuality - they should not be simply a photocopy." Prof Antinori hit back and said: "Cloning creates ordinary children." They would be "unique individuals, not photocopies of individuals".

Life, the anti-abortion charity, condemned the plans but said it was "inevitable" that someone would try. National chairman Prof Jack Scarisbrick said: "Science must be subject to ethical controls and moral controls."

 


 

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