From hard science to harder ethics, cloning experts gather


Since the day in 1997 that scientists in Scotland announced the successful cloning of a sheep named Dolly, the fear of — or hope for — human cloning has been a major focus of discussion, and of legislation in many countries banning the practice.

Citing widespread confusion about human cloning and the complex ethical issues it raises, the Unites States’ National Academy of Sciences is bringing an international panel of scientists together Tuesday for a discussion of the technology and where it may be heading.

Meanwhile, debate swirls around the potential for human cloning. At least three researchers scheduled to attend the meeting have said they plan human cloning experiments.

Dr. Severino Antinori of Rome drew a fresh rebuke from Italian medical authorities on Monday, who warned that he risked losing his right to practice in Italy because of his plans to clone humans.

Antinori, who has repeatedly discussed plans to begin human cloning this year, told La Stampa newspaper that 1,300 couples in America, mostly in Kentucky, and 200 in Italy are candidates for his research — and that he plans to start cloning embryos in November.

“Ours will be an experiment of therapeutic cloning for those couples who have no hope of having children,” La Stampa quoted Antinori as saying. Because cloning would be illegal in Italy, he has said he would do the work in an unnamed Mediterranean country.

Joining Antinori at the session are researchers Panayiotis Zavos and Brigette Boisselier.

Zavos, who runs a fertility clinic in Lexington, Kentucky, and heads an organization called The Andrology Institute, also has said he wants to begin cloning a human by the end of this year.

The Food and Drug Administration has prohibited human cloning in the United States, however.

Boisselier accepted an agreement with the FDA in June — promising not to do human cloning experiments without agency approval. The agreement was signed after the FDA inspected her lab, which it declined to locate.

On Sunday, Mark Hunt, a West Virginia lawyer, said he had spent less than US$500,000 to set up a lab for Boisselier in Nitro, West Virginia, but now has changed his mind about asking her to clone his late son.

Boisselier is scientific director of Clonaid, which advertises cloning services on its Web site for fees starting at US$200,000. It was founded in 1997 by a French race car driver who changed his name to Rael and started the Raelian Movement, which claims that life on Earth was created by extraterrestrial scientists.

Among the debates over cloning is the issue of creating embryos to harvest stem cells for use in medical research.

The U.S. House of Representatives has voted to ban human cloning for any purpose. President George W. Bush is contemplating whether to allow use of government funds in embryonic stem cell research, including such research that does not involve cloning.

On the other hand, in England, Parliament voted in January to permit stem cell research on human embryos and also made Britain the first nation to specifically allow cloning to create embryos for that purpose.