Human cloning in one form or another has been on the horizon for 25 years, but yesterday’s announcement that a cloned embryo had been implanted in a woman’s womb for the first time still came as a shock to the medical world, politicians and ethicists.
And it has reignited a fierce debate about controls on scientific research and the ethics of artificially creating human life.
Those in favour of duplicating the human genetic code say it could bring about huge benefits including helping infertile couples have children, treating genetic disorders and replacing diseased organs.
But opponents believe not nearly enough is known about the procedure, and present experiments do nothing more than devalue human life.
The secrets of genetic patterns began to unravel 50 years ago when Cambridge scientists Francis Crick and James Watson discovered the structure of DNA in 1953, showing the building blocks of the human genetic code.
A decade after this, English biologist John Haldane coined the term “clone” in a speech entitled Biological Possibilities for the Human Species of the Next Ten-Thousand Years.
In 1977, mice with only a single parent were created, and a year later the first child conceived through in vitro fertilisation (IVF) was born, creating a new treatment for couples unable to have children.
Scottish scientists were responsible for one of the first major breakthroughs in the field of cloning. In 1996, Edinburgh firm PPL Therapeutics stunned the world when it produced Dolly the Sheep, the first mammal cloned from an adult cell.
‘This is reprehensible and places the mother at an unacceptable risk’
But Dolly’s birth raised as many concerns about cloning as it did hopes. The animal grew old before its time and developed severe arthritis, thought to be the result of a genetic flaw. She was eventually put down last year.
The impending possibility of human clones provoked political action. The year after Dolly was born, US President Clinton proposed legislation to ban the cloning of humans for at least five years and similar measures were adopted in many European countries. Many scientists vowed to enforce an international moratorium on research into the area.
But private research, driven by the unspoken but obvious ‘race’ to produce the first human clone, highlighted the lack of international controls on developments.
From 1997 to 2000, scientists cloned various species of animal – as other scientists claimed to be working towards the first human clone.
Panos Zavos, the American doctor who made yesterday’s claims about the first human clone, had previously worked with controversial Italian embryologist Dr Severino Antinori, who has been promising for several years that a human clone is imminent.
Five years ago, Antinori, who had in the past used IVF treatment to enable women in their 50s and 60s to give birth, announced plans to use cloning technology to help infertile couples, defying the medical establishment’s promises to control future experiments.
In 1998, American Dr Richard Seed said he was ready to begin experiments on cloning a human being within the next three months, but was unsuccessful. Authorities in Seoul would later investigate a company’s claim that it had implanted a cloned human embryo in a South Korean woman.
The group, led by French-Canadian Claude Vorilhon, views cloning as central to its beliefs and had set up a charity called CloneAid shortly after Dolly’s birth was announced.
Followers believe the only way to eternal life is through the replication of DNA. There is no such thing as the soul, but man can live on through cloning, according to the sect.
But the scientific community has still to be convinced of the veracity of the cloning claim and the group has failed to publicly produce the child.
In July last year, the first UK research licence of its kind permitting a technique that creates embryonic stem cells from human eggs was granted to the scientists that helped clone Dolly.
Professor Ian Wilmut, of the Roslin Institute in Edinburgh, and his team received a licence from the Human Fertilisation and Embryology Authority for research towards creating human embryos from unfertilised eggs, but for medical research rather than reproductive purposes.
The research could also produce perfect-match tissue, meaning transplant tissues could be created that would not be rejected by a patient, because the new cells would be derived from the patient so his or her immune system would not react.
Legal experts said that under current rules, anyone convicted of attempting to clone a baby in the UK would face up to 10 years in jail and an unlimited fine.
The Human Reproductive Cloning Act 2001 banned any attempts at cloning for the purposes of reproduction. No research is allowed for embryos over 14 days old.
The Act did not cover therapeutic cloning research being carried out by scientists such as Wilmut, which the government believes could lead to breakthroughs in the treatment of illnesses such as Parkinson’s and Alzheimer’s, and the repair of spinal injury.
Yesterday’s claims were met with outrage and considerable scepticism by many observers.
A spokesman for the Royal Society, one of the most respected bodies in British science, said it remained to be convinced by the claim.
“If and when he provides the evidence, I am sure scientists and doctors will look with interest,” he said of Zavos.
“What is more worrying is, without being sure of any substance to the claims, some infertile couples may have their hopes falsely raised, which is regrettable.”
The spokesman also accused Zavos of seeking publicity, adding: “Scientific journals and conferences are the place to present your work – not at hugely theatrical press conferences.”
During a packed press conference in London, the American refused to give details of the woman’s origin or the date of the implantation but said it did not take place in the UK, US or Europe.
Wolff Reik, cloning expert at the Babraham Institute, Cambridge, said: “My dim view is this man is exploiting the emotional pressures of parents desperate to have children.
“While it is possible the woman may fall pregnant, the odds are still stacked against the baby developing. It could die at any time.”
He added: “Absolutely nothing has changed in relation to the difficulties associated with reproductive cloning.
“In every single experiment, 99% of clones die in the womb and the remaining 1% have problems. Therefore it remains as irresponsible as before to do it in a human.”
Peter Kearney, a spokesman for the Catholic Church in Scotland, also doubted the claims made at the London press conference, arguing that the scientists involved were well known for “showmanship” rather than results.
“Even if it were taking place, or near taking place, it would be wrong. It is making children to order and no one knows what the physical, emotional or mental effects of cloning would be,” he said.
“We have only got a few examples of animals that have been cloned and these seem to have gone wrong.”
Dr Donald Bruce, the director of the Church of Scotland’s Society, Religion, and Technology Project, added that he believed the experiment was morally irresponsible.
“I would join with many others in being sceptical about this. This kind of experiment is totally irresponsible. To carry this out, based on what we know about cloning in animals, is completely reprehensible and places the mother at an unacceptable risk.
“I can only hope that this spurs our government to move towards a worldwide ban on cloning because of the risks that someone like this scientist will attempt to misuse the technology.”