Little behind Clonaid, files reveal : But publicity raises funds, membership

The Boston Globe, Apr. 23, 2003
http://www.boston.com/
By Raja Mishra, Globe Staff

The fringe scientific group Clonaid, which earned international notoriety last year by claiming to have cloned a human baby, has no address, no board of directors, and only two employees, according to sealed court documents obtained by the Globe. Yet the group is pushing forward with plans to charge dozens of prospective cloning patients up to $200,000 apiece for its services.

The picture that emerges from the documents, as well as from interviews with Clonaid’s tiny staff, is of a disorganized, amateurish effort that nonetheless has raised hundreds of thousands of dollars and has plans to gross even more.

Clonaid asserts it has continued work at full speed, allegedly cloning its fifth baby recently, though no proof has been offered.

And the Raelian sect has seen its dues-paying membership swell by 10 percent because of all the publicity, according to its founder.

”People are trying to laugh them off, but there are plenty of people who are gullible, who believe what Clonaid says and that may fall victim to their scheme,” said Bernard Siegel, a Florida lawyer who unsuccesfully challenged the group in court to appoint a legal guardian for the supposed first clone. ”It’s terrible that they prey on people who have these hopes.”

Clonaid announced last December that it had created the world’s first cloned baby, which it named Eve. Scientists were openly skeptical, but the group nonetheless received enormous news media attention. Shortly afterward, however, Clonaid reneged on a promise to offer independent proof.

Court documents generated in Siegel’s lawsuit portray an organization that scarcely exists. Its vice president works from his Las Vegas home and has trouble getting in touch with the boss, Brigette Boisselier, Clonaid’s president and a ”bishop” in the Raelian sect. But Clonaid advertises itself as a company, actively soliciting investments through its Internet site, with most coming, said the company’s president, from gravely ill patients wishing to be cloned or infertile couples seeking children – a particularly vulnerable group, say critics.

Boston University medical ethicist George Annas said that offering unproven cloning technology to patients could run afoul of federal securities regulations.

A Securities and Exchange Commission spokesman refused to comment on whether the agency had investigated Clonaid.

Boisselier, in an interview, said her company had to keep its corporate operations shrouded in secrecy to avoid harassment by government officials. She said the company has filed legal papers in a foreign country, which she refused to name, and had laboratory space in another country, which she also refused to name.

As for the allegations that Clonaid’s cloning claims were publicity hoaxes, she said, ”This is [expletive]. I have five cloned babies.” She refused to say whether or when Clonaid would offer independent proof.

Boisselier said the group’s next endeavor is to construct the ”Babytron,” an artificial womb.

”The next step in reproductive cloning is certainly to get rid of the womb of the woman,” she said. ”We have the money to do it.”

The money, said Boisselier, comes thus far from 12 investors who each gave $25,000 or more, some with the hope of one day using the group’s cloning services. One was a brain tumor patient, she said, who considered cloning a way to extend life. Some others wanted to clone themselves just before death as a means of extending life. Others were infertile couples, ”people who believe in us,” Boisselier said.

The donors contact Clonaid through its website, then, the vice president, Thomas Kaenzig, calls them back.

Kaenzig, a Las Vegas resident, was at the center of the Florida court case that followed Boisselier’s Dec. 27 announcement at a Hollywood, Fla., hotel that Clonaid had created Eve. Siegel asked a Florida court to take custody of Eve, on the grounds that the cloning process, which has been shown in animal tests to cause harm, was a form of abuse.

In court, Clonaid said Eve resided in Israel. The case was dismissed after a Florida judge determined that US courts had no jurisdiction in Israel. Before the court hearing, Siegel conducted a closed-door deposition of Kaenzig under oath, and the transcripts are part of the still-sealed case file.

Though he is Clonaid’s vice president, Kaenzig described himself as an ”independent contractor” who largely conducted business through e-mail. His main duty was to contact prospective patients, maintain the Clonaid website, and make public appearances, including a January speech at an investors conference, according to the deposition transcript.

Siegel asked Kaenzig whether Clonaid had filed documents in any country establishing itself as a company, to which the vice president replied, ”I don’t know.”

Kaenzig’s lawyer, Jonathan Schwartz, then interrupted, saying, ”Actually, there is no such company as Clonaid, correct?”

”Correct,” Kaenzig said.

Kaenzig could not be reached for this article.

Clonaid first appeared in 1997 in West Virginia, funded by a wealthy couple who wanted to clone their recently deceased son. But the couple pulled out, decrying Clonaid as a publicity-mongering operation.

Clonaid next registered as a Bahamas company under the name Valiant Venture Ltd., according to court documents. The company was little more than a post office box, and the Bahamian government shut it down within months.

In addition to the five supposedly cloned babies announced so far, Boisselier said about 20 more clone births would be announced by the group this year, including one involving a member of her family. To date, she said, there has been no charge for cloning patients. But late this year, the group will begin charging up to $200,000 per patient, according to court documents. In addition, Clonaid runs something it calls ”Insuraclone,” charging $200 annually to store cells for future cloning. It also sells donated eggs for $5,000 and plans to clone pets for an undisclosed fee.

With all this income, and so little corporate structure, Siegel and other critics say, Clonaid is little more than a fund-raising wing of the Raelians.

But Rael, the leader of the Raelian movement, strongly denied any direct ties to Clonaid.

”I know nothing about the company. I don’t know where the lab is, who the scientists are, or the customers,” he said. ”I just support the idea.”

Rael was once known as Claude Vorilhon, a French journalist. He contends that a meeting with aliens inspired him to start the Raelian movement, which believes that humans are clones of an alien race called the Elohim.

Rael, in an interview, said his group’s international membership rolls jumped to 60,000 from 55,000 after Clonaid captured headlines last December. Each new member pays about $50 in annual dues, though many give more. He estimates the cloning-related publicity to be worth about $7 million in advertising.

”I have all the advantage without the inconvenience. It’s really a win-win situation,” he said.

Rael said he thought up the Babytron. His ultimate goal is to create clones that mature to adulthood rapidly in artificial wombs. Raelians could ”download” their minds into these clones, Rael said.

”You would remember your bank account number, the name of your girlfriend,” he said. ”It would be the most wonderful gift.”

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