'Genie Out of the
Bottle' on Human Cloning
Science: American and Italian announce a joint project to duplicate a person.
By AARON ZITNER, Los
Angeles Times Staff Writer
WASHINGTON--A well-known Italian fertility specialist and his U.S. colleague
have announced plans to clone human beings, apparently becoming the first scientists
with expertise in human reproduction to publicly set such a goal.
They may well succeed, cloning experts said Saturday--but not without causing
Cloning would likely produce stillborn and diseased children, they said, and might
provoke lawmakers to seek bans on a broad range of medical research, such as work
that uses tissue from human embryos to try to cure disease.
The two scientists stressed that their cloning procedure would be offered only to
couples who cannot bear children by other means.
"We are serious people and have a track record to show for it," said Panayiotis
M. Zavos, professor of reproductive physiology at the University of Kentucky.
"Cloning has already been developed in animals. The genie is out of the bottle. It's a
matter of time when humans will apply it to themselves, and we think this is best
initiated by us . . . with ethical guidelines and quality standards."
Zavos said he is working with an Italian researcher, Dr. Severino Antinori, who
has already pushed the boundaries of fertility treatment by helping women become
pregnant well after menopause, including a 62-year-old woman.
The two men announced their plans Thursday at a conference in Lexington, Ky.,
and Zavos said Saturday that they had lined up 10 infertile patients who want to be
cloned and 10 other researchers who want to help. He declined to name any. He said
the work would be done in an undisclosed foreign country.
Cloning experts said the announcement signals that the technology has matured
and that it is bound to force its way onto the agenda of U.S. politicians and
regulators. No federal law bars cloning in the United States, although the Food and
Drug Administration has said anyone seeking to use it as a reproductive tool for
humans would need agency approval.
Cloning specialists said they feared Zavos and Antinori might provoke a backlash
against medical research by raising fears that scientists have crossed ethical
Indeed, the cloning announcement came at a sensitive time: On Friday, President
Bush expressed his personal opposition to federal funding for research that uses
tissue from aborted fetuses. Bush's comments raised concern among some scientists
that he might try to thwart plans to fund fetal- and embryo-cell research, which aims
to cure diabetes, Parkinson's disease and other ailments.
The cloning plan "just invites prohibitions across the board that shuts down the
very research we need to cure disease," said Ronald Green, a Dartmouth College
Equally worrisome to some researchers is that when cloning fails, it often fails in
gruesome ways. For every successfully cloned cow, sheep or goat, dozens of others
fail to grow in the womb, die at childbirth or perish soon after birth from deformities.
"As far as cloning a human being, it's definitely an achievable feat--unsafe
unethical, but achievable with the right resources and know-how," said Dr. Robert P.
Lanza, vice president of scientific development of Advanced Cell Technology Inc. in
Worcester, Mass., which has cloned cows and goats. "Cloning is conceptually very
simple, so someone with the drive has a real chance of succeeding."
The problem, said Rudolph Jaenisch, a cloning expert at the Massachusetts
Institute of Technology, is that "there will very likely be defects, and this is very
Cloning is a process for creating a genetic duplicate of an individual. Although the
offspring may not look or behave exactly like the parent, it has the same genes. In
the four years since the arrival of Dolly, the famous sheep and the first cloned
mammal, scientists have successfully cloned cows, pigs, mice and other animals.
In cloning, scientists start with an egg cell. They remove the egg's DNA, then
insert DNA or even a whole cell from an adult animal. It was a mammary cell from a
6-year-old ewe that produced Dolly, but skin and other adult cells have also been
When the process works, the egg cell begins dividing and grows into an embryo.
The embryo is then transferred to a surrogate mother and grown to term, just as
human "test-tube" babies are produced at fertility clinics.
Scientists believe that cloning often fails because the adult DNA retains some
features of its former life as a mammary cell, skin cell or other type of cell. It took
277 attempts to clone Dolly, which produced only 29 embryos that could be
transferred to a surrogate mother. A single one grew to term and was born as Dolly.
Zavos, in an interview Saturday, said he was well aware that many cloning efforts
produce flawed embryos. But he said existing techniques, and those he and his team
hope to develop soon, would give scientists the ability to determine which embryos
will grow successfully and which are bound to fail.
"We are not out there and loose and ready to go," Zavos said from his home in
Lexington. "We are very much aware of this. It will take some experimentation to get
to where we need to go."
But he added that his goal was to develop viable, cloned human embryos within
18 months or two years.
Zavos said he and Antinori would hold an international meeting in Rome in
March to consider ethical guidelines and to continue working out their plan.
He noted that many people in the field believe that rogue researchers are already
working on human cloning and that they may attempt to sell their services to wealthy
people who want to clone out of vanity or as "investors who want to make another
Zavos, 56, said he has known Antinori for 15 years and began talking with him
about the cloning project in 1988. Zavos is the president of ZDL Inc., a private
corporation that markets infertility products. Government records show that Zavos
has been granted four patents in the last decade on laboratory devices and
Antinori is the director of a Rome-based artificial insemination clinic. He attracted
international attention when he treated a 62-year-old woman with hormones so she
could conceive. She gave birth to a boy in July 1994.
Along with his ongoing work in helping older women become pregnant, he has
pioneered a technique to aid sterile men by cultivating their nascent sperm cells inside
the testicles of mice.
Antinori could not be reached for comment, but the Lexington Herald-Leader
reported Friday that he had acknowledged his role in the cloning announcement at
the conference Thursday.
The scientists' announcement came days after British lawmakers approved
human cloning for medical purposes.
That work reflects the hope that cloning can be used to produce tissues for
transplantation into patients. It envisions that patients would be cloned and the
resulting embryos grown for several days. Then, scientists would extract the
embryo's stem cells, the so-called master cells that can become any type of tissue in
The stem cells would be grown into new pancreatic cells for diabetics, nerve cells
for spinal injury victims or brain cells for people with Parkinson's disease.
Scientists say this would bypass a serious problem in many transplants, in which
the patient rejects the new tissues or organ as "foreign" material. Cloned tissue is
thought to be more readily accepted by the patient's body.
Still, the process of cloning human embryos for medical purposes could yield
information that would help make it a viable technique for reproduction, specialists
"There are many teams in the world that are on this project, so I don't think
[Zavos] is the only one," said Lanza. "There are groups in China, Europe, the United
States, though very few who are thinking of using this to generate identical human
beings. Most reputable scientists believe that is crossing an ethical line."
Copyright 2000 Los Angeles Times