Uproar at press conference as US fertility maverick drops genetic bombshell
A US fertility specialist flew into Britain yesterday to announce that he had transferred the first cloned embryo into a woman – but he refused to give a shred of evidence to back up his astonishing boast.
With theatrical flair, Dr Panos Zavos, an IVF expert from Kentucky, told a packed press conference in London that he had created the first cloned pregnancy. He said that he had taken a skin cell from a man and fused it with the egg of a 35-year-old woman and that in two weeks’ time they would know whether a full pregnancy was safely established.
His announcement was greeted with laughter and disbelief. A scientist compared it to recent claims by the alien-loving Raelian sect, who say they have created cloned babies.
No details were given to corroborate Zavos’s claim. All he would say is that it happened outside Europe and the US and that it took place within the last fortnight.
The press conference descended into farce when he criticised the highly respected medical journals Nature and Science, saying he wouldn’t want his work to be reviewed or published in them because they did not have enough experts to deal with it.
Cloning is illegal in Britain but not in many other parts of the world, including the Middle East. Zavos defended using the technique, saying: ‘I am simply doing this to help my patients and to give them the child that they long for.’
During the press conference Zavos presented pictures of himself as an astronaut walking on the Moon to convey his point that much was achievable in the future. He became annoyed when journalists persisted in asking questions about why he had previously claimed to have created cloned human embryos without ever providing scientific evidence that this is the case.
Zavos is no stranger to controversy. He claimed back in 2002 that he had created the world’s first cloned embryo, saying he was sure he would oversee its birth by the end of last year. He said at the time: ‘This is all about creating healthy children for childless people. It doesn’t bother me at all that people can’t accept it – they really ought to.’
Supported by another fertility specialist, Dr Paul Rainsbury, Zavos also announced plans to offer couples embryo-splitting, a technique where one embryo is divided into two. One part is implanted into the womb of the woman and is born as normal, and the other is frozen and stored for use in ‘spare parts’ surgery in case the twin should fall ill later in life. Zavos tried to jus tify the action yesterday, saying: ‘Families in the future will be looking for possibilities of ensuring the general health status of their baby that is born by having another embryo that is similar. If the baby becomes ill, or develops any genetic abnormalities or deformities or injuries, then they can use that embryo to create stem cells to treat the baby’s disease or deficiencies.’
He had to admit, however, that no one has ever successfully performed this on a human embryo, although it has been achieved in animal experiments. ‘But all intentions are that we will,’ he stated. He claimed that other scientists were ‘bad mechanics’ who had failed to use the right techniques to achieve the result they wanted.
A chorus of voices was raised against Zavos. Robin Lovell Badge, professor of genetics at the National Institute for Medical Research, said: ‘He is merely preying on people’s fears. Firstly he preys on the fears of infertile couples that they will never have children. Secondly, he preys on the fears of those who do conceive that their children will have health problems that could be solved by the splitting of embryos – without explaining that implanting half an embryo would dramatically reduce their chances of having a healthy baby in the first place.’
Many cloned animals have been born sick or deformed, and there are few successful births. In primates it appears to be even harder; last year Science reported about researchers at the University of Pittsburgh School of Medicine who tried to clone a rhesus macaque monkey. Despite hundreds of attempts they were unable to establish a single pregnancy.
The central obstacle is that during the development of a cloned embryo the genetic material which is parcelled up as a cell splits in two. The cells end up with too much or too little DNA and cannot survive for long. There are also fears that any woman who chose to be a surrogate might be put at risk as a result of the untried procedure.
Wolff Reik, cloning expert at the Babraham Institute in Cambridge, said: ‘Absolutely nothing has changed in relation to the difficulties associated with reproductive cloning. In every experiment, 99 per cent of clones die in the womb and the remaining 1 per cent have problems. Therefore it remains as irresponsible as before to do it in a human.’
Professor Alison Murdoch, chair of the British Fertility Society, also condemned the work, saying: ‘We feel that giving undue credence to this unethical, dangerous and highly experimental field is irresponsible.’