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Forum on Human Cloning Turns Raucous

TIMES STAFF WRITER

In a scientific forum punctuated by shouting matches, three doctors from the United States, Italy and Israel told critics Friday that nothing can stop their plan to create cloned children and said that more than 600 infertile couples have already signed up with them.

The would-be pioneers disclosed little new information about their semisecret project, announced six weeks ago, and spurned the idea of submitting to ethical or scientific oversight by any government.

Instead, they spent four polemic-filled hours either belittling rival researchers and wary politicians or trying to convince them--and a skeptical public--that science is ready to move on to cloning humans despite a disturbing rate of disease and deformities in similarly reproduced animals.

“Some claim that we’re moving too fast. They are right,” Dr. Avi Ben-Abraham, an American Israeli biotechnologist, told a packed lecture hall bristling with TV news cameras from around the world. “We are moving as fast as we can think, as fast as we can imagine, [but] we are proceeding with the utmost responsibility.”

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The team is led by Dr. Severino Antinori of Italy, who has already pushed the boundaries of fertility treatment by helping women become pregnant in their late 50s and early 60s. He and Dr. Panayiotis M. Zavos, an American reproductive physiologist who has just left the University of Kentucky, announced their project Jan. 25, apparently becoming the first specialists in reproduction to publicly set the goal of cloning a human being.

At Friday’s forum in Rome, organized to publicize and advance the project, Ben-Abraham introduced himself as the third member of the team. He is a practitioner of cryonics--which involves freezing people at death in the hope that science will one day be able to afford them resurrection--and lost a race for Israel’s parliament in 1999.

Cloning is a process for creating a genetic twin of an individual. Scientists start with an egg cell, remove the egg’s DNA, then insert DNA or even a whole cell from the adult being duplicated into the egg. When the process works, the egg cell begins dividing and grows into an embryo, which is then transferred to a natural or surrogate mother and grown to term--just the way human “test-tube” babies are produced at fertility clinics.

In the four years since the arrival of Dolly, the famous sheep and the first cloned mammal, scientists have cloned cows, pigs, mice and other animals. But for every successful birth, they have lost dozens who fail to grow in the womb, don’t survive birth or die soon after birth from deformities.

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Driven by fear of similar risks to human clones or ethical objections to the idea of reproducing humans in such a manner, many governments have moved to restrict or ban human cloning.

Opposition echoed Friday inside and outside the narrow lecture hall at Umberto I Policlinic, Rome’s largest hospital.

“How can you take the destiny of the human race into your hands?” Fabrizia Pratesi, a leader of Italy’s Green Party, asked from the audience.

“No provocations, please,” the moderator warned her. “Just scientific questions.”

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“I’m going to be very provocative!” Pratesi shouted, seconds before her microphone went dead. “All the major organizations of human society oppose human cloning. It’s unthinkable.”

The proceedings were disrupted again when a doctor in a white coat rose, over the moderator’s objections, to read a disapproving letter from the head of the hospital’s obstetrics and gynecology department. He branded the event “inopportune and reprehensible.”

Amid the disorder, a Harvard-educated scientist, Dr. Richard G. Seed, got up and said he wanted to clone his wife.

Organizers of the forum had billed it as an ethical discussion that might help guide their work and would include participation by an unnamed Roman Catholic cardinal. No church official came, but Bishop Elio Sgreccia, head of the John Paul II Institute for Bioethics in Rome, assailed the project from a distance.

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“Those who made the atomic bomb went ahead in spite of knowing about its terrible destruction,” he said from his office in Rome’s Gemelli Hospital. “This doesn’t mean it was the best choice for humanity.”

Antinori, the project leader, spent part of the question-and-answer session fending off such criticism. He shouted down visiting researchers and reporters who raised ethical questions about the project.

Referring to opposition to cloning in Germany and Japan, he told a Japanese reporter: “Germany did horrible experiments during World War II, so they probably have a sense of guilt. Japan has psychological problems.”

The Italian fertility specialist and his colleagues tried to shift the focus of debate to the quiet desires of infertile couples.

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Zavos said they have received “thousands and thousands” of e-mail messages since their January announcement, and “99.9% of them are positive.” Infertile couples in Japan, Argentina, Britain, the United States and elsewhere want to take part in the cloning effort, he said, and the list of volunteers is growing.

“They come to us and they don’t call you names, they don’t cuss you out, they don’t say, ‘You’re unethical,’ ” Zavos said, pacing the lecture hall like an evangelist giving a sermon. “They just say, ‘Help me, please.’ ”

The scientists said they would work only with couples who cannot bear children by other means. They said they expect to produce a viable embryo for cloning within 18 to 24 months but wouldn’t disclose where they will set up their lab. Zavos said the group is looking at “around six countries,” including some in Europe.

He said the group has “unlimited” funding from unidentified private sources and would handle its own quality control. “We don’t want the government involved in this project,” he said.

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Other scientists argue that the results of animal cloning so far underscore the need for more research on animals before cloning is tried on humans. Dr. Ian Wilmut, for example, says he lost 28 embryos from 277 eggs before creating Dolly the sheep.

On Friday, Zavos denounced Wilmut’s method as “irresponsible,” saying the Scottish scientist failed to screen his embryos properly before planting them in prospective mothers. Drawing on techniques used during the 23-year history of test-tube babies, Zavos said, his team is perfecting a screening method to identify which embryos will grow successfully and which are bound to fail.

“Before Columbus reached America, a lot of shipwrecks took place,” he said, acknowledging that there will be failures. But he said the failure rate should be in line with that of test-tube babies--one successful birth for every three or four tries.

Dr. Robert P. Lanza, vice president of scientific development of Advanced Cell Technology Inc. in Worcester, Mass., which has cloned cows and goats, disputed the claim that Zavos and his team can screen for healthy embryos.

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“That’s absolute nonsense. No one knows what’s causing the problems, let alone how to screen for them,” he said. The statement that embryos can be screened and the healthiest picked out “is insulting. The world’s top cloning experts have spent years trying to do exactly that.”

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Times staff writer Aaron Zitner in Washington contributed to this report.


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