Clonaid under the microscope: A history of unsubstiated claims
The New York Times, via The International Herald Tribune, Jan. 1, 2003
Gina Kolata and Kenneth Chang
Clonaid, the company that says it has produced the first human clone, has made astonishing claims in the past that were not substantiated. And the journalist whom Clonaid has appointed to authenticate its latest claim was once an intermediary between a couple who wanted cloning services and a scientist who wanted to provide them, the scientist says.
Clonaid was founded in 1997 by Claude Vorilhon, the leader of a religious sect that believes space travelers populated Earth through cloning and that humanity’s mission is to clone. When he formed the company, the leader, who calls himself Rael, had an express purpose in mind, Clonaid’s vice president, Thomas Kaenzig, said in an interview this week.
“It was a project to create controversy,” Kaenzig said. “That was his mission, to wake people up.” Though the company advertised a cloning service, it was hardly ready to provide it. For three years, Clonaid “was just a post office box in the Bahamas,” Kaenzig said. “There was no research going on.”
But by the spring of 2001, Clonaid’s research director, Brigitte Boisselier, who is a chemist, a Raelian bishop and now the company’s chief executive, had begun telling of a secret Clonaid laboratory in the United States.
“She was very coy about it,” said an official at the U.S. Food and Drug Administration, whose approval would have been required for any human-cloning work in the United States. “She said, ‘I have a lab, but I won’t tell you where it is.'”
But the food and drug agency’s office of criminal investigation soon found it, in a rented room at an abandoned high school in Nitro, West Virginia.
The environment there was hardly ideal for research, said the official, who would speak only on the condition of anonymity. Insects flew through the open windows, possibly from a nearby barn. “There was no place where sterile conditions could be had,” the official said, and the researcher there was a graduate student who seemed woefully unprepared.
“The lab notebooks were reviewed by our staff scientists,” the agency official said. “They were inadequate” to document scientific research.
The work under way was not even with human cells. The graduate student had obtained cow ovaries from a slaughterhouse and was trying to extract eggs from them. “The notebooks had a sketchy page and a half: ‘We went to the slaughterhouse and got some ovaries,'” the official reported.
But the equipment in the lab was state of the art, the official said. It had been bought by a grieving father whose 10-month-old son had died of congenital heart disease and who wanted to clone him. The father, Mark Hunt, a lawyer and former West Virginia state legislator, had obtained the equipment from a fertility lab that was going out of business. Accounts of how much he paid vary, but Michael Guillen, the journalist appointed by Clonaid in the current case, said on an ABC News television program a year ago that Hunt had spent $200,000.
After its inspection of the Clonaid lab, the food and drug agency official said, the agency reached an agreement with Hunt that he would not proceed any further in trying to have his dead son cloned in this country without the agency’s permission. Hunt, who did not return repeated telephone calls seeking comment, later sold the laboratory equipment in Nitro and closed the lab, the agency says. He also publicly broke off from the Raelians, saying they were too avidly seeking publicity.
The company then moved its operations out of the country, Kaenzig said.
He added that the company had begun by learning to create cow embryo clones and that by the fall of 2001 it had created its first cloned human embryo.
Many learned of Hunt and his travails from Guillen, whose doctorate, from Cornell, is in theoretical physics, mathematics and astronomy. On Sept. 7, 2001, when he was a science editor for ABC News, Guillen interviewed Hunt and his wife, Tracy, on “20/20 Downtown” and showed a video of their baby, Andrew, who had died in 1999. Guillen did not describe the lab’s inadequacies on that program, but he did say that Boisselier was being investigated for fraud and reported that she had moved her cloning efforts out of the country. (Citing confidentiality concerns, federal law enforcement authorities would not confirm or deny anything that Guillen said about the investigation.)
Only seven months earlier, Guillen had reported that Clonaid was on the brink of success.
“I met with Dr. Boisselier, who is the scientific director, and she told me that in two weeks they’re expecting to conceive the first human clone, implant it in a surrogate mother and hoping for a pregnancy in March,” he reported on “20/20” on Feb. 16, 2001. “Ready or not, the technology is on its way.” Soon another scientist who was interested in cloning met the Hunts. In an interview Tuesday, that scientist, Panos Zavos, founder and director of the Andrology Institute of America, in Lexington, Kentucky, said that Guillen had told him he could send the Hunts to talk to him, but that in return Guillen wanted exclusive rights to their story.
Zavos, who says his work on human cloning is taking place outside the country, ended up seeing the Hunts, but Guillen was unable to negotiate an exclusive agreement with him, because he had already made an agreement with a documentary filmmaker, Peter Williams. Guillen did not return repeated calls Tuesday to his office and to his agent’s office.
Zavos said he had not cloned yet and had not taken any money from Hunt. He said he wanted to get the technique to work first with cells taken from living people before trying it with stored frozen cells from the dead.
Meanwhile, Bernard Siegel, a lawyer, has asked a judge in Broward County Circuit Court to appoint a guardian for the baby. Siegel said that Clonaid was trying to commercially exploit the child and that she needed specialized medical treatment.