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Cloning Researchers Upstaged by Circus

WASHINGTON, D.C.--Amid a media circus Tuesday, two groups of renegade scientists reiterated their intention to create human babies by cloning. The meeting was intended to be an information-gathering session to advise a National Academies panel as they draft a report on human cloning research slated for release this fall--but most of the attention focused on possible plans to create cloned children. Several scientists expressed concern that all the talk of reproductive cloning would lead to a public backlash against all research on human cloning.

Many scientists believe that research on early embryos created by cloning could lead to medical and scientific breakthroughs. But using cloning to create babies is another matter: More than a dozen experts in embryology and reproductive cloning of animals told the panel assembled at the National Academy of Sciences here that many animal clones have mysterious health problems that seem to stem from the cloning procedure.

The would-be creators of cloned babies, however, said that they were not concerned by the possibility of birth defects. Chemist Birgitte Bossilier, a member of a religious sect that teaches human beings are descendants of clones, said she believes human cloning is safe enough to proceed. She said that she and her colleagues were perfecting ways to test for abnormalities in eight-cell embryos derived from somatic cell nuclear transfer--the technique that was used to create Dolly the sheep--but she did not specify whether the embryos were human or animal.

Infertility expert Panayiotis Zavos said that he and gynecologist Severino Antinori have not created a human embryo using nuclear transfer, but are trying. "We are ... collecting information that will help us do it in the most efficient way," he told the panel.

The meeting was often raucous. At one point, Zavos accused cell biologist Rudolph Jaenisch of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, who has strongly condemned so-called reproductive cloning, of shoddy science. The two attempted to shout each other down during a question-and-answer session. The auditorium was packed with reporters, and one television news reporter broadcast a live report from the auditorium during a discussion period.

Scientists hoping to make the case for research on human cloning said the media circus did not aid the cause. One of the speakers, developmental biologist Peter Mombaerts of Rockefeller University in New York City, said the distinction between legitimate scientific research on nuclear transfer and attempts to produce a human baby with the technique was muddled by all the attention on reproductive cloning. "We didn't do a very good job of defending where we would like to draw the line," he says. However, he says the meeting did produce a clear message from leading scientists that reproductive cloning is unsafe. "If somehow in the course of that we end up damaging the cause of therapeutic cloning, perhaps that is a secondary priority," he says.

Related site

The National Academies site on human cloning