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Report of cloned fetus met with skepticism
( 2002-04-07 14:31 ) (7 )

A newspaper report quoting an Italian doctor who said a woman in his human cloning program is pregnant was met with criticism and skepticism Saturday from scientists and ethicists.

The report from the English-language Gulf News of Dubai, United Arab Emirates, said Dr. Severino Antinori made the announcement earlier this week at a cloning conference in Dubai.

In response to a question about his project to clone humans, he was quoted as saying: "Our project is at a very advanced stage. One woman among the thousands of infertile couples in the program is eight weeks pregnant."

Antinori, who heads a fertility clinic in Rome, refused to reveal the identity of the woman, what country she came from, nor the details of the process by which she became pregnant, but he said 5,000 couples took part in the project, according to the report.

The Italian physician raised eyebrows last year when he announced his plans to create the world's first cloned human babies along with Panayiotis Zavos, who runs an infertility clinic in Lexington, Ky. The idea was met with outrage around the world, despite the promised benefits of some avenues of research.

Antinori first gained worldwide notice by helping a 62-year-old woman have a child in 1994.

Spokeswomen for Antinori said he would not comment on the newspaper report, and he did not answer calls to his cell phone. Zavos' office also declined to comment.


Dr. Arthur Caplan, director of the Center for Bioethics at the University of Pennsylvania in Philadelphia, is one of many experts skeptical and critical of the report.

"Of all the people who talk about cloning babies, Antintori is the one with the technical abilities to do it," acknowledged Caplan, who is also a Breaking Bioethics columnist for MSNBC.com. "But I am very skeptical," he said, given the animal data that show that only about 30 of every 350 or so tries will produce a pregnancy.

One of the many women in the program "would have dropped a dime and leaked the news" if it was true, Caplan said. "You can't keep something like this a secret."

Antinori has made predictions before regarding human cloning that proved false, he added.

Even if cloning does result in a pregnancy, the animal studies show there is a 97 percent chance of miscarriage or stillbirth, he noted. And of the cloned animals born despite these odds, a great number have had health problems, from abnormal growth to arthritis, Caplan said.

Until the technique is refined, "any attempt at human cloning is completely immoral," he said. "If he does succeed, he is not a hero, but a villain who shows a callous indifference to babies in his desire to be first."

Dr. William Keye, president of the American Society for Reproductive Medicine, which opposes using cloning to make human babies, agreed.

"Despite the assertions of progress made by some self-proclaimed cloning experts, there is no scientific evidence to justify an attempt to clone a human being," he said in a statement from the organization. "We urge the media, the public and policy makers to meet such claims with skepticism rather than alarm, unless they are accompanied by peer-reviewed scientific evidence."

Ronald M. Green, who directs the Ethics Institute at Dartmouth College in Hanover, N.H., also said it's far from certain that an 8-week-old pregnancy would lead to a birth.


"The record in animal cloning has been so disastrous in terms of fetal survival that I would hesitate to think that this pregnancy will necessarily go to term," he said.

Dr. George Daley, a researcher at the Whitehead Institute for Biomedical Research in Cambridge, Mass., said he could not comment on scientific aspects of the report.

"I can only repeat my strong belief that based on what we know about the risks and limitations of animal cloning, the pursuit of reproductive cloning by these individuals is irresponsible and dangerous," he said.

To clone a human, Antinori has said he would insert DNA from a person into an egg stripped of its genetic material. The egg would be stimulated to divide into an embryo for implanting into a woman's uterus.

Antinori's plans prompted the United Nations to set up a panel last year aimed at drafting an international treaty to ban the cloning of human beings.

The treaty drafting process is expected to take years, but this latest announcement is likely to give more urgency to the debate, which began in February.



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