Cult’s human cloning claim ignites fierce debate among scientists

The New York Times, via the International Herald Tribune, Dec. 30, 2002
Denise Grady and Robert Pear

NEW YORK – A religious sect’s claim to have cloned a human baby has provoked fierce criticism from scientists and lawmakers who said that public outrage might stifle research aimed not at making humans, but at curing diseases.

Many scientists are skeptical of the claim, announced Friday by a private company linked to the Raelians, a sect that believes space travelers created the human race by cloning.

But other experts, along with members of Congress on both sides of the debate over human cloning, said that true or not, the claim could have immense implications.

“What a sad day for science,” said Dr. Robert Lanza, medical director of Advanced Cell Technology of Worcester, Massachusetts, a company that has cloned human embryos to provide cells for research but not to create babies.

“What they’ve claimed to have done is both appalling and scientifically irresponsible, and whether or not it’s true, they have done a tremendous disservice to all of us in the scientific community,” Lanza said. “The backlash could cripple an area of medical research that could cure millions of people, and it would be tragic if this announcement results in a ban on all forms of cloning.”

“It’s the announcement that the religious right and anti-abortion groups have been praying for,” he said. Scientists also warned that human cloning carries a high risk of creating children with genetic defects.

Both houses of Congress have been battling over the issue for more than a year. In July 2001, the House voted, 265 to 162, to ban all forms of human cloning. Rival bills have been introduced in the Senate, one seeking to ban all human cloning and the other seeking to ban cloning for reproduction but not for research. Senator Bill Frist, Republican of Tennessee, who was just chosen Senate majority leader and who favors a ban on all forms of cloning, called the announcement on Friday “disturbing” and added: “While its validity is unclear, it should serve as a chilling reminder that individuals are still trying to clone human beings. These actions offend our sensibilities and undermine fundamental respect for the decency of human life.” Lanza and other researchers said it was important to distinguish between two types of cloning. One, reproductive cloning, is used to duplicate a person; the other, therapeutic cloning, is used only to create cells needed for research.

In both types, researchers begin by removing the nucleus from an unfertilized human egg to strip the egg of genetic material. Then they insert another nucleus, from an adult cell, into the egg, and stimulate the egg to begin dividing and form an embryo.

In reproductive cloning, the developing embryo would be inserted into a woman’s uterus, where it would theoretically grow into a genetic copy or identical twin of the person who donated the adult cell. This is what the Raelians claim to have done.

In therapeutic cloning, the embryo is never implanted in the uterus. Instead, it is allowed to develop for only a few days, and then a part is removed to provide stem cells, which have the unique potential to become almost any cell in the body. Many researchers believe stem cells will yield insights into diseases and perhaps even treatments or tissue replacements for ailments like diabetes, heart disease, immune disorders and Alzheimer’s disease.

“All responsible scientists oppose reproductive cloning,” said Dr. Steven Teitelbaum, a pathology professor at Washington University in St. Louis and president of the Federation of American Societies for Experimental Biology.

“The concern that we have is that because this is an emotional issue, because of the moral and ethical implications, the emotion will spill over into areas which have great potential to help patients with diseases like Parkinson’s, diabetes and amyotrophic lateral sclerosis.” Dr. Brigitte Boisselier, the chief executive of Clonaid, the company that claims to have cloned the baby, said in an interview on CNN that the company was promoting human dignity by helping couples who could not otherwise have children to do so with their own genes. She also said a pediatrician had examined the newborn girl and, “We have no clue of anything going wrong.”

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