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Quests build to clone humans

Cloning humans is banned in 23 countries. But scientists are pushing the technology forward.

By Staff / February 7, 2001

Reported by staff writers Peter N. Spotts in Boston, Peter Ford in Paris, Ruth Walker in Toronto, and Ilene R. Prusher in Tokyo; with contributions from Shai Oster in Beijing, Lucian Kim in London, and Shawn Donnan in Sydney. Written by Peter N. Spotts.

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Panayiotis Zavos and Severino Antinori are looking for a few talented scientists.

Next month, the University of Kentucky professor and the Italian fertility clinic doctor plan to hold a meeting in Rome to jump-start one of the most controversial projects researchers have ever proposed: to clone whole human beings as a way to help infertile couples have children.

The two doctors are not the first to publicly declare their intention to clone humans. In the four years since Scottish researchers presented Dolly, a cloned ewe, a US physicist and a UFO sect based in Canada have announced similar plans.

But the two researchers represent what some say is the most credible challenge yet to a consensus in most countries that cloning humans should be banned. Their move comes as a number of nations are considering easing their regulations on the use of cloning in biomedical research - and as the quest to clone humans gathers momentum.

"There are a lot of people highly motivated" to be the first to clone a human," says Gregory Stock, director of the program in medicine, technology, and society at the University of California at Los Angeles. The duo's plans "are forcing us to look at reality and to acknowledge that this is going to happen."

As countries draw up their regulations, they're drawing a distinction between reproductive cloning, in which a child is brought to term, and cloning for medical research. At least 23 countries ban reproductive cloning. But barriers to cloning for medical or "therapeutic" research are beginning to crumble as biomedical scientists make politically persuasive cases for cloning of human embryos under tightly circumscribed conditions.

On Jan. 22, Britain became the first country to permit researchers to clone human embryos for medical research. Scientists are interested in mining the embryos for their stem cells, a common foundation from which all the cell types in an adult are said to emerge. Researchers say these cells are potentially powerful tools for studying human development, treating disease, and regenerating organs and tissue.

Britain's new law, which covers research in corporate as well as government labs, prohibits researchers from allowing the embryos to develop beyond their first 14 days. Moreover, embryos could be used only under government license. The new regulations "provide scientists with a very clear ethical and moral framework," says Harry Griffin, associate director of the Roslin Institute in Edinburgh, Scotland, where Dolly was cloned.

He adds that he expects an explicit ban on reproductive cloning. "There is no chance that reproductive cloning will be allowed in the UK or any other European country," he says.

While the US shows no signs of ending it's ban on federal funding for research that results in the destruction of a human embryo, Britain's law is likely to be seen as a model by other countries.

Australia, Canada look to British precedent

For more than a year, a parliamentary committee in Australia has been sorting through the pros and cons of cloning for medical research. It is expected to issue its recommendations next month.

"The developments in Britain are important," says John White, secretary for science policy at the Australian Academy of Science in Canberra. "We clearly oppose cloning whole human beings. There are too many troubling ethical and moral issues. But therapeutic cloning is something we believe should be considered."