Thursday, March 29, 2001
In face of warnings, human-cloning proponents still resolute
Two groups of scientists testified that they were pushing ahead, even after receiving letters from the FDA.
By Faye Flam
WASHINGTON - Two groups of scientists yesterday testified that they were gearing up to clone human beings in secret laboratories and that they saw nothing illegal in their quest.
However, they did say that they had received warning letters from the U.S. Food and Drug Administration on Tuesday. The contents of those letters were not disclosed.
But Kathryn Zoon, director of biologics evaluation and research for the FDA, said people who undertook experiments deemed unsafe could be subject to a $100,000 fine and up to a year in prison.
Rep. James C. Greenwood (R., Pa.) called the hearing to consider the need for a law banning human cloning.
"Although publicly funded human-cloning research is prohibited, privately funded human-cloning research is not," said Greenwood, who chairs the House Energy and Commerce Committee's Oversight and Investigation subcommittee.
Panos Zavos, a fertility specialist who recently left the University of Kentucky, told the subcommittee that he expected to create a human clone within two years at a laboratory outside the United States.
"Those who want to ban this [cloning] would have stopped Neil Armstrong from flying to the moon and banned Columbus from discovering America," Zavos said.
And Brigette Bossellier, a chemist and chief scientist for the Canadian group Clonaid, said it was preparing to create a clone from the cells of a child who had died. The work, she said, was being done at a secret laboratory somewhere in the continental United States.
Clonaid is run by a religious order whose members, known as Raelians, believe humans were cloned thousands of years ago by extraterrestrials.
Bossellier read a letter at the hearing from the child's father. She said he paid $500,000 for the procedure and asked that his name not be revealed.
She read: "I decided I would never give up on my child. I knew we only had one chance - human cloning."
Others, however, testified that any children created through cloning would likely have serious defects.
Rudolph Jaenisch, who clones mice at MIT's Whitehead Institute, said efforts to clone a human would almost certainly result in hundreds of miscarriages, stillbirths, infant deaths, and children with serious heart, kidney and brain defects. "I believe there probably isn't a normal clone around," Jaenisch said, referring to the animals cloned so far.
The cloned sheep Dolly may not have had perfect brain function - "You don't need that much brainpower to graze in the field," he said.
The problem, Jaenisch said, is not that the clones have genetic defects but that something goes wrong in a process called reprogramming, in which the genes in a cell are prompted to launch the life process. Normally, he said, that reprogramming process takes place when egg and sperm unite. With cloning, it is stimulated by electricity or some other artificial means.
Mark Westhusin, a Texas A&M University veterinarian, also testified that most cloned cattle did not survive and that many were born with defects. Westhusin has been trying for more than a year to clone dogs, with no success in sight.
Bossellier and Zavos argued that cloned human embryos could be screened for genetic defects. They compared cloning to in vitro fertilization, once questioned but now an accepted solution for some infertile couples.
"These are options that give people hope to have a healthy child," Zavos said.
Jaenisch emphasized that no screening technique existed to find errors resulting from reprogramming. And if the technique is not safe in animals, it should not be used in humans, he said.
"Humans are not guinea pigs," he said.
Thomas Murray, commissioner of the National Bioethics Advisory Committee, chastised those wanting to clone humans. "You're creating false hope," Murray said, "and exploiting parents in their grief over lost children."
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