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Cloning Gets an Airing

Advocates and opponents speak out at hearing

TUESDAY, Aug. 7, 2001 (HealthDayNews) -- Advocates of human cloning and scientists wary of the procedure squared off today at an occasionally heated hearing on the issue.

A National Academy of Sciences panel in Washington, D.C., heard presentations from almost 20 researchers, including Ian Wilmut, who led the effort to clone the first animal, Dolly the ewe, in 1997.

In addition to defining its position on human cloning for the federal government, the panel also hopes to explain the difference between cloning and embryonic stem cell research, a controversial technology that involves the destruction of early-stage human embryos. President Bush is now weighing whether to permit federal funding for this research.

The hearing, which will lead to a report for the public due later this year, comes less than a week after the U.S. House of Representatives voted to ban all human cloning in this country. In passing the ban, the House struck down a proposal that would have allowed scientists and companies to create human embryos to harvest for cell therapies, a practice known as "therapeutic cloning."

Although the House move cheered anti-abortion activists and religious conservatives, many scientists have criticized it, calling the ban overly sweeping and likely to deprive patients of valuable treatments.

Among the presenters today were two researchers from the United States and Italy, who have announced plans to offer infertile couples a chance to use cloning to produce a baby.

Dr. Severino Antinori, of the International Associated Research Institute for Human Reproduction in Rome, and Panayiotis Zavos, of the Andrology Institute in Lexington, Ky., defended their intentions.

Congress is "afraid, they're scared and they're uniformed" about cloning's risks and benefits, Zavos said. He contended that defects associated with the procedure aren't as inevitable as many researchers have suggested.

"We're not perfect but we're trying to get there as perfectly as we can," Zavos said, adding that he has not yet cloned a person. "This technology can be developed, [it can] be made safe for people."

Brigitte Boisselier, who has founded a company in the United States to offer cloning to couples, said she and her colleagues have achieved "very positive results" in producing genetically normal clones.

"I will not clone a human being expecting some kind of defect," Boisselier said. Boisselier is a "bishop" in the Raelian movement, which claims human life was created in an extraterrestrial laboratory and deposited on Earth.

Boisselier also defended human cloning on ethical grounds. "I think it's our own choice to use our genes the way we want," she said.

But Rudolf Jaenisch, a biologist at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, said cloning presents considerable pitfalls.

Many cloned offspring are abnormally large, or suffer heart and breathing problems, Jaenisch told the panel. These complications appear randomly, he added, and are probably the result of gene activation very early in the life of the cloned embryo.

Even outwardly healthy clones may have subtle gene abnormalities, he said, asking, "Can you really pre-screen embryos for abnormalities?"

Jaenisch delineated the difference between therapeutic cloning and in-vitro fertilization to create embryos. In the first technology, scientists plant genetic material from a donor cell into a stripped-down egg to create lines of healthy cells out of an egg, but not embryos. "It is propagation of existing life, not a new genetic combination," Jaenisch said.

Jaenisch also told the panel that the potential complications of cloning do not plague stem cell therapy once those cells are mature.

Lawrence Soler, chairman of the Coalition for the Advancement of Medical Research, said cloning and stem cell science are not the same, although the technologies share embryos as a fundamental ingredient.

"I do agree with the panel that it's important that everyone understand that these are very separate issues," added Soler, whose group supports embryonic stem cell work.

What To Do

To learn more about the cloning report, visit the National Academy of Sciences.

For more on how researchers make clones, try How Stuff Works. For a pro-cloning perspective, visit the Human Cloning Foundation. For an opposing view, visit the Society for the Protection of Unborn Children.

SOURCES: Interview with Lawrence Soler, chairman, Coalition for the Advancement of Medical Research, Washington, D.C.; Webcast of National Academy of Science panel meeting
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