Fringe Cloning Venture Raises Troubling Issues
A reproduction specialist once accused of unethical behavior is helping to spearhead a team of foreign scientists on a crash research program to replicate humans.
By AARON ZITNER, STEPHANIE SIMON, Los Angeles Times © 4/22/01 Times Staff Writers
LEXINGTON, Ky. -- When Central Baptist Hospital
fired Panayiotis Zavos seven years ago, officials issued a terse explanation:
The male reproduction specialist had engaged in "unethical and illegal
behavior," an administrator wrote to colleagues. "If Dr. Zavos appears
in the lab, please inform me and security immediately. Do not leave him alone
in the lab for any reason."
Hospital officials believed that Zavos, a part-time
contractor, had used their staff and their premises to help run his private
fertility business. They suspected him of violating state law by helping patients
have children through surrogate mothers and said he kept patient fees that
should have gone to the hospital.
What happened years ago in Lexington would mean
little to the rest of the world except that Panayiotis Zavos has
suddenly become a leading advocate of something far more controversial--and
potentially far more dangerous--than surrogate motherhood. In January, he touched
off an international media frenzy by claiming that he, along with a team of
foreign scientists, would begin a crash research program to help infertile
couples have children through the first-ever human cloning.
Zavos boasts that his 25 years of research on
reproduction make him the right person to develop a technology that
most cloning experts say is too dangerous to try with humans. In
animals, cloning produces dozens of stillborn or unhealthy offspring--some
of them grotesquely deformed--for every healthy animal.
To widespread skepticism among scientists, Zavos
has told Congress, foreign leaders and countless journalists that
he can overcome such problems. He says his team offers a competent
contrast to the rogue researchers who may already be trying to clone
people in secret--"irresponsible individuals,
Saddam Hussein," he said recently. "Obviously, there are
a lot of Saddam Husseins in the world."
"Producing developmentally abnormal human
children is clearly not ethically acceptable by us," he testified
before Congress last month.
But here in Lexington, Zavos' dismissal from
Central Baptist Hospital colors his claim that he can draw the line
between what is ethical and what is not.
In fact, the dismissal touched off a long and
improbable chain of events that led to a rebuke from a judge for
misusing the legal system and a citation from the University of Kentucky,
where he was a professor of animal sciences, for violating federal
rules designed to protect people in medical research.
A jury ordered him to pay a former employee nearly
$500,000 in a lawsuit. His own lawyer was subsequently disbarred,
in part because of an effort to hide Zavos' assets from the ex-employee.
Zavos denies the allegations made by Central
Baptist and the University of Kentucky, and he said that he legally "shielded" his
assets from his former employee, which he considered a shrewd move.
Yet his record troubles some former colleagues.
"Past behavior seems to indicate to those
of us who have had to work with Zavos that his values, ethics and integrity
may be in question," said William G. Sisson, president of Central
"If he's not willing to follow those protocol
requirements [at the hospital and university], what is he going to be doing
when he gets into the larger issue of cloning?" asked Linda
Hewitt, a lab technician who raised some of the earliest concerns
about Zavos at Central Baptist.
Zavos has plenty of fans, who consider him vibrant, smart and above all, extraordinarily devoted to helping infertile couples have children. "Dr. Zavos was instrumental in us being able to have a family after I can't tell you how many people told us to forget it," said Emily Dyre, a Louisville patient who now has two children. "I think the world of the man."
Health of Child Still the Standard
With his cloning venture, Zavos
is drawing criticism far beyond Lexington. The technology has matured
to where someone might indeed be able to clone a person. But nearly
every cloning expert says it has not developed enough to ensure that
the child would be healthy.
Cloning humans today "would be extremely
irresponsible," said Ian Wilmut, the Scottish scientist responsible for
Dolly, the cloned sheep. "Likely outcomes would include late
abortions, the birth of dead children and, worst of all, abnormal
children that lived."
Zavos claims to have raised millions of dollars
from private donors and started cloning research in a clandestine
lab overseas, which cannot be verified. Still, his team has already
been criticized by Democratic and Republican lawmakers for proceeding
before society has worked out the moral implications of human cloning.
His plans have prompted lawmakers to file legislation to bar human
cloning, angering medical researchers who fear this might also shut
down cloning work aimed at producing cures for disease, rather than
Said Arthur Caplan, a University of Pennsylvania
bioethicist who also testified before Congress: "I think he
is the most dangerous of the current fringe proponents of cloning,
because he knows more, stretches the facts and seems to be wallowing
in a mix of publicity and fund-raising that rests on a foundation
People Desperate for Own Children, He Says
A self-described "cowboy," Zavos,
57, seems at peace with himself even while so many others complain
about his behavior.
"I'm willing to go to hell to get something
done, if I believe it's the right thing to do," Zavos said earlier this
month. Wiry, intense and wearing his customary white lab coat, he was interviewed
in his combined medical supply and semen analysis office in Lexington. He said
he was committed to helping people who have "no other option" to
exercise their "right to reproduce."
Zavos has received hundreds of e-mails from people
desperate to produce their own children since he made the cloning
project public. One U.S. naval officer stationed in Japan wrote that
he and his wife had adopted three children, "but it's just not the same as a child from our blood." A
man from New Zealand, unable to produce sperm, begged Zavos to help: "I
would do anything to have my own child!"
Zavos says he would not be doing the lab work
on cloning. That job falls to a team of 10 or so scientists from
around the world who, he says, have already started research on animals.
They include the prominent Italian fertility doctor Severino Antinori,
who has already pushed the boundaries of fertility treatment by helping
women become pregnant well after menopause, including a 62-year-old
Zavos calls himself "the referee," in
charge of reviewing the group's research data and recommending when
it is safe to move from animal to human cloning, though other team
members will have input. He says he is reviewing medical records
of prospective patients to cull 10 couples from more than 1,000 volunteers
who are willing to be cloned.
Zavos has also become the team's international
spokesman, a role he clearly relishes. "I just got off the phone with
Barbara Walters!" he said on a recent morning, looking delighted.
He showed off his computer in-box, clogged with
e-mails from news reporters. A Japanese magazine writer was due the
next day. So many TV crews have followed Zavos around--NBC's "Dateline" alone
spent four days filming him in February--that the Federal Express
delivery man was surprised to see no cameras in the office.
"You're looking better now that you don't
have all that press on you," he told Zavos.
Zavos said he will debate Dolly creator Wilmut
at Oxford University in June, and he has recently signed on with
the speaker's bureau that represents Mikhail S. Gorbachev and Larry
King. Already, he said, the bureau has found him three speaking engagements
at $10,000 to $15,000 apiece, including one in June before health
care executives at the Los Angeles Convention Center.
"I have come a long way, I must say," Zavos
said with a smile.
Mother Became Pregnant 26 Times
Born in Cyprus to a poor family, Zavos
(pronounced: za-VOSE) remembers selling oranges on the roadside at
age 5. His mother, who never learned to read or write, became pregnant
26 times, Zavos said. Eight siblings survived into adulthood. Zavos
is the only one to have a college degree. In fact, as he likes to
point out, he has four.
Zavos arrived in the United States in 1966, at
age 22, and enrolled at Emporia State University in Kansas. To earn
cash, he worked nights in a milk-processing plant. To learn English,
he watched television. He especially loved the commercials. The slogan
from an old restaurant ad is now his motto for his cloning group: "We'll
do it right, or we won't do it."
Drawn to reproductive physiology, he eventually
moved to the University of Minnesota, where he earned a doctorate.
His research focused on ways to freeze turkey sperm.
By the early 1990s, Zavos had won an academic
post in the animal sciences department at the University of Kentucky.
He published prolifically and won several U.S. patents. Eager to
make his mark in the world of human reproduction, he started a private
business that sold supplies to fertility clinics.
Zavos also opened a second business, which offered
sperm analysis and related services. In addition, he worked at Central
Baptist, performing lab work for 10 hours a week in the hospital's
reproductive clinic at an annual salary of $55,000. While not a physician,
Zavos is trained as an andrologist, or male reproduction specialist.
Then, in 1994, the many parts of his complex
work life began colliding uncomfortably. That is when Zavos' lab
technician at Central Baptist, Linda Hewitt, told her supervisors
that she suspected Zavos was helping surrogate mothers become pregnant
and breaking hospital billing rules.
As a Christian institution, Central Baptist helps
only married couples conceive children, and it bars any activities
related to surrogate motherhood. Kentucky law also bars arrangements
in which a surrogate mother is paid a fee.
Hewitt "came to me with the names of people
that she thought Dr. Zavos was doing surrogacy with," Michael W. Vernon,
former director of the hospital's reproductive labs, testified in a 1996 deposition. "And
also she was uncomfortable with the fact that it seemed like he was
seeing his patients at Central Baptist, and she knew that when he
saw patients at Central Baptist they were supposed to be registered
and billed for Central Baptist, and they weren't."
After running a computer check, the hospital
found several people who had registered as patients but who had never
been billed, Vernon testified in a 1997 civil suit that Zavos brought
against another person. Vernon said the hospital contacted two of
the patients, who claimed that they had actually paid their bills.
One patient faxed a copy of a canceled check
to show proof of payment, Vernon said, "for a procedure that
was done by Linda Hewitt in Central Baptist, using Central Baptist
equipment. The money should have gone to Central Baptist. It was
for two sperm preparations, which are $63 apiece. . . . But the check
came in for $1,540, and it was made out directly to Dr. Zavos for
the procedure performed by Linda Hewitt. And on that day he was terminated."
Zavos, in an interview, said that some of his
private patients might have been inadvertently registered as hospital
patients because he asked them to meet him at the hospital rather
than his private lab to produce specimens. But he insisted that he
never used hospital equipment or personnel to prepare specimens for
his private business. "No, no, no,
of course not," he said. "Absolutely not."
Zavos also said he is confident his work with
surrogacy patients, which he still performs, is legal, because all
he does is prepare semen for insemination. He said he plays no role
in arranging contracts between surrogates and clients, which, in
his reading, is the action barred by state law.
Zavos' dismissal by Central Baptist triggered
a series of disputes with others, including employees at his medical
supply company, Zavos Biotechnology Laboratories Inc.
Potential Biohazard Alleged by Workers
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