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Scientists look for nation to host human cloning project

Knight Ridder/Tribune Business News

JERUSALEM -- Will the first cloned human baby be an Israeli, a Cypriot or some other nationality?

A controversial team of scientists is on the hunt for a nation willing to host one of the most daring ventures in the history of medicine. Using the same technology that conjured up a cloned sheep named Dolly in 1997, they want to clone a human being.

And now they have brought their quest to Israel.

``We have the technology to clone a baby within the year. We have the funding. We have the patients. We just need the location,'' said Avi Ben-Abraham, an Israeli-American physician who is pushing a cloning project here.

Ben-Avraham was meeting in Jerusalem last week with rabbis and politicians trying to convince them that Israel should change a law that effectively prohibits human cloning. At the same time, Panayiotis Zavos, a reproductive physiologist based in Lexington, Ky., was lobbying officials in Cyprus to host the cloning project.

Meanwhile, Severino Antinori, the Italian doctor famous for helping a 63-year-old woman conceive, suggested to the Italian media that the first human cloning project could take place in one of the countries of the former Soviet Union.

Most European countries signed an international protocol in 1998 banning human cloning. Although human cloning is not illegal in the United States--merely prohibited in institutions receiving federal funding--the team of scientists believe the American political climate would make such experiments impossible. The U.S. Food and Drug Administration is also moving to prohibit cloning.

The scientists created a furor in January when they held a press conference in Lexington announcing they would soon clone a human being in an undisclosed foreign country.

The heat forced Zavos to resign from a long-time position at the University of Kentucky. A forum organized by the team last weekend in Rome to publicize the project erupted in shouting matches, and shortly afterward, the Italian medical association threatened to yank Antinori's license to practice medicine.

``We were three blocks away from the Vatican, so obviously this was explosive,'' said Zavos in a telephone interview.

In Zavos' view, human cloning is inevitable and any attempts by governments and religious authorities to stifle it will ultimately fail. ``The genie is out of the bottle. Dolly is here and we are next,'' he said at the Rome conference.

The team says that human cloning would allow the infertile to have genetic children of their own. They also claim their research would lead to successful cures for many diseases, including Parkinson's and Alzheimer's.

To produce a clone, scientists take an egg cell and strip away the genetic material, inserting in its place DNA from the individual who is being duplicated. If successful, the egg begins dividing and grows into an embryo, which is then implanted in a female by the same technique used with in-vitro fertilization.

The mainstream view is that the existing technology is too primitive to test on human beings. Ian Wilmut, the Scottish doctor who cloned the sheep, has said that he went through 277 eggs before succeeding and that there were many sheep born dead or deformed before Dolly.

``I think they are a traveling set of scam artists,'' says ethicist Arthur Caplan of the University of Pennsylvania about the prospective cloners. ``It would be completely irresponsible to use this primitive technology to make a human, and there is no pressing need. The infertile can use donor eggs, donor sperm or adoption.''

The storm over human cloning blew into Israel last week when Ben-Abraham arrived to pitch his case. The 43-year-old Israeli-born doctor made a small fortune in the United States in the biotech industry and in the less conventional fields of medicine. He was president of the American Cryonics Society -- a non-profit firm based in California that freezes peoples' bodies and tissue with the hope they can be brought back to life later. In Israel, he gained some fame in 1999 by spending what one colleague estimated was close to $1 million running for parliament in the Likud party. He lost.

It is only in the last few weeks that Ben-Abraham has hooked up with Zavos and Antinori's cloning project. Zavos described him as a consultant or adviser, while Antinori told Italian news agencies that Ben-Abraham is providing financing. Ben-Abraham himself said he is a partner and that he recently incorporated a company known as Abaclone to carry out cloning research in Israel.

In an interview at the King David Hotel in Jerusalem, where he spoke somberly and wore a dark, conservative business suit, as though to dispel any impression of being a mad scientist, Ben-Abraham said he is convinced Israel will embrace his project.

``The attitude of Judaism is more accepting about creating human life than Christianity, or Buddhism or Islam,'' said Ben-Abraham. ``The first men were created by God. But God also gave us the intelligence that at the end of the cycle we can clone ourselves.''

Despite Israelis' natural uneasiness with anything that smacks of genetic engineering, a reaction to Nazi Germany's gruesome experiments, Israel is a leader in the use of in-vitro fertilization to treat infertility.

``When the first test-tube baby was created in 1978, people said it created a lot of attention and controversy, too. Now, it is routine,'' said Ben-Abraham.

Following the lead from Europe, Israel two years ago enacted a law that puts a moratorium on human cloning until 2004. Ben-Abraham said he has several powerful friends in politics who agree with him that the law should be changed. He would not name them, but said they are members of Likud and Shas, a religious party.

In response to Ben-Abraham's arrival, Israel's two chief rabbis issued opinions about human cloning. Rabbi Eliyahu Bakshi-Doron, who represents Sephardic Jews, said unequivocally that cloning was against Jewish religious law. The chief Ashkenazi rabbi, Israel Meir Lau, was slightly more receptive to the concept.

``In principle, Judaism takes a positive view on technological developments and medical progress, but also puts limits on medical science,'' said Lau in a statement.

From a purely practical standpoint, Israeli health ministry officials say that the research would be exceedingly difficult to undertake in Israel because of a shortage of donor eggs.

So far, Cyprus appears to be no more receptive to the idea of hosting a human cloning project. Zavos, who was born on the Mediterranean island, met earlier this month with Greek Cypriot president Glafcos Clerides, as well as with the health minister. Patricia Hadjisotiriou, a Cypriot government spokeswoman, said that the country is unlikely to host human cloning because it could damage its bid to join the European Union.

And so the odyssey continues.

Zavos said there are many other possibilities, including countries in the Middle East.

``We have many friends in these parts of the world. I have connections with Arab physicians,'' said Zavos. ``We are sure we will find a comfortable location for our work. We are not desperate.''


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