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Updated 17:15 05 April 02
NewScientist.com news service
A woman taking part in a controversial human cloning programme is eight weeks pregnant, claims Severino Antinori, one of the two controversial fertility specialists leading the effort.
"One woman among thousands of infertile couples in the programme is eight weeks pregnant," Antinori is reported as saying at a meeting in the United Arab Emirates. If true, this would represent the first human cloning pregnancy.
Antinori's colleague, Panos Zavos at the Andrology Institute of America in Lexington, Kentucky, had previously announced that the pair planned to clone a baby by the end of 2001. Both Zavos's office and Antinori's office in Rome refuse to confirm or deny the report to New Scientist.
Antinori refused to reveal the nationality of the woman or her location at the meeting, according to the Gulf News. Almost 5000 couples are now involved in the programme, he said.
If confirmed, the pregnancy will cause uproar. Many countries have banned reproductive cloning and most prominent scientists have warned of the high risk of severe birth defects, as well as very high rates of miscarriage. The technology is also opposed by many on ethical grounds.
Richard Gardner, an expert on early mammalian embryo development who also chaired the UK Royal Society's working group on therapeutic cloning told New Scientist that such a pregnancy would be "grossly irresponsible given the current state of knowledge, even aside from any ethical issues".
Antinori claims to be able to screen the embryos to reduce the risk of abnormalities but Gardner says: "There's no way you can do it - you could only spot gross changes in chromosomes or in the number of chromosomes." There can be single gene defects, he adds, and problems with imprinting - the latter do not just relate to malformation but are also linked to cancer.
"The chance of a live birth of a normal child is very hard to assess," says Gardner. Studies on other mammals, including sheep, cows, mice and goats have had limited but variable success, he says, and there is a very high rate of embryo loss and early death.
With access to an intensive care unit, perhaps one of the first 100 human cloning pregnancies would result in a baby that survives beyond the first few weeks of birth, leading cloning scientists estimate.
Donald Bruce, of the Church of Scotland's Science, Religion and Technology project, says: "Antinori is conducting experiments on people, playing on their vulnerability. His cavalier attitude to the significance of the animal cloning experiments and the risks involved puts him beyond the pale of responsible scientists."
Bruce says human reproductive cloning is ethically unacceptable in any circumstances as people have a right to their own, unique genome and a right not to have another's DNA forced upon them.
Richard Nicholson, editor of the UK-based Bulletin of Medical Ethics, says the report of the pregnancy strengthens the need for international legislation to ban reproductive cloning. Although the practice is banned in some countries, such as the UK, it is still legal in many - including the US, where the Senate is currently debating cloning legislation.
"We need an international law to prevent mavericks like Antinori doing something that the vast majority of the public and responsible scientists say they do not want to have done," Nicholson says.
Nicholson also highlighted the many failures in animal cloning programmes. "So long as there are Antinoris around, it probably is inevitable that there will be a live clone birth. But that clone will probably have a very brief and sad life," he says.
In November 2001, biotech company Advanced Cell Technology in Massachusetts, published a much-criticised study detailing the creation of three cloned human embryos of just six cells each. Chinese scientists have also claimed to have created early human clones. The purpose of this research is to produce early clones for the extraction of stem cells, for medical treatments. The cloned embryos would be destroyed after a few weeks.
Emma Young and Damian Carrington
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