Medical Consortium Aims to Clone Human Embryos

Vatican Concerned About Grave Ethical Implications

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WASHINGTON, D.C., JAN. 30, 2001 (ZENIT.org).- The first cloning of a human embryo could become a reality within two years, according to a North American specialist.



An international group of reproductive experts plans to launch a serious effort to clone humans to provide children to infertile couples, a U.S. scientist said Friday.

A viable embryo, probably created using stem cells or other cells taken from an adult, could be available for implantation in the woman´s uterus within 18 months, said Dr. Panayiotis Zavos. The doctor works at the Andrology Institute of America, and the Kentucky Center for Reproductive Medicine and In Vitro Fertilization in Lexington, Kentucky.

Zavos, a 25-year veteran in the reproductive field, hosted a conference Thursday in Lexington, where he and Italian fertility Dr. Severino Antinori announced plans for a scientific consortium to clone humans.

Antinori was censured by the Italian College of Physicians for using the practice of "surrogate mothers," which is prohibited by Italian law.

"This is going to be the first serious effort," Zavos said in a telephone interview. "I do know various individual groups that are acting on their own, but they lack the support."

Scientists have cloned sheep, beginning with Dolly in Scotland in 1997, as well as mice and cows. But any suggestions that human clones are next have been met by outrage within the scientific community and in political and religious circles.

"As revolutionary as it may sound, as fictional as it may sound, it will be done," Zavos said. "It´s a genie that is out of the bottle and will be controlled."

Zavos disclosed that 10 infertile couples have volunteered to participate. He also said that his group will hold a conference in Rome in March, to which a cardinal from the Vatican will be invited. The Catholic Church is opposed to human cloning.

The consortium will operate in an as-yet undisclosed Mediterranean country. The scientists plan to use regular cells or undifferentiated stem cells from the husband and insert them into a woman´s egg that has been stripped of its genetic material. The cell would be stimulated to divide and create an embryo equipped with all the specialty cells that make up a copy of the man, and then implanted in the wife´s uterus.

The wives could also be the ones cloned, depending on the couple´s choice, Zavos said.

"We have a great deal of knowledge," he added. "We can grade embryos, do generic screening, and quality control," Zavos added. "It´s not the easiest thing. The ability of the genetic information is what´s important. We´re cloning a human being now; we´re not trying to create a Dolly. You don´t want to create a monster."

To create animal clones, scientists frequently made hundreds of failed attempts to develop viable embryos. Medical ethicists have posed the possibility of cruel failures in human cloning, where genetic abnormalities result in grotesque fetuses unable to survive outside the womb.

Dr. Antinori sparked a furor in Italy by helping post-menopausal women become "granny moms," and also pioneered a technique to help sterile men by "cultivating" their nascent sperm cells inside the testicles of mice.

In 1997, the Pontifical Academy for Life ( http://www.vatican.va/roman_curia/pontifical_academies/acdlife/index.htm ) founded by John Paul II himself, published the document "Notes on Cloning," which explains the grave ethical repercussions of human embryo cloning, independent of the fact that it might be for reproductive purposes, scientific research, or organ banks.

Subsequently, last August, this same Vatican institution published the "Declaration on the Production and the Scientific and Therapeutic Use of the Human Embryonic Stem Cells."
The above document explains that "no end believed to be good, such as the use of stem cells for the preparation of other differentiated cells to be used in what look to be promising therapeutic procedures, can justify an intervention of this kind. A good end does not make right an action that in itself is wrong."