The Special Report

3rd June 2001
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Race for a double

A maverick cult leader and a team of top-notch scientists compete to clone the world's first human. What will be the consequences of their success?

The guru wants to play God. That was the chorus from critics when the 54-year-old sportswriter-turned-leader of the Raelians sect unveiled his plans for a genetic leap forward. They reacted with disdain when he set up Clonaid, the world's first company to clone a human, soon after the birth of Dolly, the world's first cloned sheep, in 1996. Things have changed since then and the disdain has been replaced by part-disbelief, part-dread.

More so after an American couple approached Clonaid last year with the preserved skin cells of their 10-month-old son who didn't survive heart surgery. Rael's scientists accepted the challenge, and the $500,000 that the couple offered for a cloned child. Boasting the best equipment, geneticists and fertility experts-and now loaded with cash-Rael is moving towards his goal.

Unless Dr. Panayiotis Zavos delivers first. The Cyprus-born, Kentucky-based doctor has teamed up with Italian fertility specialist Dr Severino Antinori in an international project to clone the first human. Zavos and Antinori, who grabbed headlines six years ago when he helped a 62-year-old Italian give birth, have the same objective as Rael: devising a new technique to help infertile couples have children.

The speed with which the cloners are making progress would have surprised Hans Spemann. Ninety-nine years ago, the German embryologist gingerly extended a sliver of hair from the head of his infant son to splice two cells of a salamander embryo. To his astonishment, the separated cells grew into two robust salamanders. Spemann's was one of the earliest attempts to prove that every living cell of an animal is loaded with the genetic map for the entire creature. It took another nine decades for Dolly to arrive, then Cumulina the cloned mouse, and Starbuck II the cloned prize bull. A few piglets and some calves followed. Suddenly, it appeared that Aldous Huxley's Brave New World was unfolding before our eyes.

The only missing characters from the cloning cast were humans. Now Rael, Zavos and Co. promise to people the New Age Noah's Ark. "Our project is making progress every day," Zavos told The Week. His international consortium will apply "the human therapeutic cloning technology only for reproductive purposes to help those who have exhausted every possible avenue in having their own biological child."

Five years ago such talk would have tickled the critics. After Dolly, the chuckles have been quieted by the refrain that someone is bound to clone a human sooner than later. With every breakthrough since Dolly, researchers have polished the craft of being copycats. So much so that the technology isn't any great shakes today. Everyone knows that cloning involves the creation of a genetic twin from a single cell-such as a skin cell-from an adult. The way Scottish scientist Dr Ian Wilmut went about cloning Dolly was pretty straightforward: the DNA-containing nucleus from the cell of an adult sheep was transferred to a donor egg whose nucleus had been removed. The two were fused with an electrical jolt, activating the growth of the embryo which was then transferred to a surrogate mother's womb to develop. Scientists believe that the process to clone a human will be more or less the same.

Sometimes cloning occurs without any electrical jolt-as in the case of twins-with only the parents receiving a jolt at the double whammy! "Initially there is one egg, but suddenly it bifurcates and they grow into two babies. It does happen naturally," says Hinduja. "Thus cloning a human is quite possible."

Not just possible, says Zavos, but it is "inevitable that human cloning will be done by someone." He argues that it will be better if the procedure is handled by a group like his which will "develop this technology in the most responsible way".

Maybe that's a dig at his competitor in Quebec, but the maverick cult leader nursing a new-born religion could just be ahead in the race. In February, Clonaid's scientific director Dr Brigitte Boisselier revealed her team had started work on human eggs and was practising the technique of enucleation or the removal of the nucleus. Next, they would practise the process of transferring the nucleus of a cell into the enucleated cell. If things went as expected, they would have begun work on the preserved cells of the dead child by early April. Add the gestation period and you know when to expect the results.

The only obstacle seems to be the large number of failed pregnancies during the cloning process. Dolly came after 277 attempts at fusing the donor egg in the womb of the surrogate ewe; Starbuck II was born after 68 tries. Indeed, the cloners will have to make hundreds of attempts to create an embryo and also to implant it successfully. And, most surrogate mothers with bulging bellies face the certainty of an abortion because of defects in the embryo or the placenta.

The numbers game will challenge the cloners, who know that the higher the availability of donor eggs and surrogate wombs, the greater their chances of success. On this score, the Raelians don't have a worry: 50 women followers volunteered to become surrogate mothers. The advantage of such large numbers is that even if one pregnancy is aborted, the experiment will continue through other surrogate mothers instead of having to wait for the woman's next cycle.

- The Week


Rael promises'Eternal life for all'

Last year a couple paid $500,000 to your company to clone their child. What is the progress?

We are currently working on this project and hope to have a pregnancy real soon.

What are the chances of success in cloning a human?

Today the success rate of mammal cloning is reaching levels of 15 per cent. We know less about mammal reproduction than we do about human reproduction. Our knowledge on human reproduction, thanks to IVF, is such that we are very confident on the outcome of this research.

Your critics say that your project is unethical.

They are wrong. Ethical is only a word to hide superstitions and taboos.

Prof. Ian Wilmut says human cloning will be "absolutely criminal".

What is criminal is to deny the right to scientists to work on projects [like these], the right to individuals to choose the way they want to reproduce, the right for the future to be born.

Do you have the expertise to clone?

Our scientists are well-trained biologists and physicians.

Your critics say that your project is not legal.

It is perfectly legal to do these researches in the US. If it becomes illegal, we will ask the US Supreme Court whether they want to deny the right of reproduction choice to the hundreds of couples who have requested our services. I doubt they will. In any event, we will always respect the laws of the country in which we are located.

Will there be any development problems in a cloned child?

None. No more than in sexually-produced children.

There are fears that many of the surrogate mothers will suffer horrible miscarriages.

If an embryo is not viable there will be miscarriages in the few days following the implantation, just like in IVF.

The IVF success rate is in the range of 30 to 40 per cent meaning that 60 to 70 per cent of the implantations lead to miscarriages.

This is well documented. We do not know why these miscarriages [in cloning projects] would be more horrible than the other ones. The surrogate mothers know that they may have to face it.

How has life changed for you since you became Rael?

No more selfishness. I think only about the well-being of humanity, and I devote my life to helping mankind to reach higher levels, both spiritually and scientifically.

How do you see the world in the year 2020?

Cloning will be performed by hundreds every day as IVF is today. The media was talking about monsters and Frankenstein after the birth of Louise Brown, the first test-tube baby. Now 20,000 babies have been born using this technique. It is well accepted. It will be the same with cloning.

Nanotechnology will make work obsolete, as well as money. Nanorobots or nanobots will do all the work and production, and humans will be able to enjoy life. All diseases will be cured thanks to genetics, cloning and stem cells. Schools will disappear replaced by direct downloading of education in the brain, jails will disappear, and eternal life will be available for all.

Interview with Dr. Panayiotis Zavos, human cloning project leader

'A human can be cloned safely'

Do you believe that a human can be cloned? Or is it all a dream?

The project is on its way to being executed and therefore it is not just a dream. A human can be Imagecloned and can be cloned safely. Please do not forget that the effort of our consortium is to apply the human therapeutic cloning technology for reproductive purposes only and to those who have exhausted every possible avenue in reproducing their own biological child.

What is the progress of your project?

It is well under way and we're making progress every day.

Experts have criticised your project, not only because of the ethical issues but because of the possibility that a cloned human will have serious malformations.

The so-called experts in the field of animal cloning have created a monstrous opinion about reproductive cloning. Since they have been unable to execute their efforts successfully, because of a variety of reasons, they believe that nobody else should attempt to apply this development in humans.

Most of the animal cloners have carried out their so-called experiments in a "hit and miss" configuration and are driven by fame and fortune. We are not driven by any of those qualities but rather by our desire to help our fellow men and women to have a better life.

Experts say that serious malformations have occurred in all species cloned so far, and they are sure it will happen in humans too. Are their fears justified?

With further experimentation our consortium will be able to develop the proper technology to bypass and overcome any of the so-called difficulties that the animal cloners are referring to. We do not live in a perfect world and therefore there will be mishaps and risks taken like any other technology that is currently available for use in humans. The consortium will not step on dead bodies and deformed babies to develop and apply this technology. Furthermore, we will not do this unless it is safe. This is the responsible way of going about it.

- The week

High life in Baghdad's streets

While a battle is being waged at the United Nations over the future of sanctions, Baghdadis flock to Arasat Street at night to catch a glimpse of the fancy restaurants or do some window-shopping

BAGHDAD, Saturday (AFP) - Arasat Street is the "embargo-free" zone of Baghdad where wealthy punters are spoilt for choice among exclusive restaurants and fashion boutiques that belie 11 years of sanctions against Iraq.

This is where spanking new German and Japanese sedans outnumber the bangers that ply the streets of the rest of Iraq. At Al-Mizan (The Scales), bow-tied waiters in red-and-white-striped waistcoats thread their way swiftly around the tables, as fountains and soft lights reflect in a pool outside.

" Most of our regular clientele are well-off Iraqis or foreigners," said the manager, Abdel Jaber al-Bahraini. The average meal price of just over five dollars is way out of the reach of most Iraqis, in a country where the average salary in the public sector is less than 10 dollars a month.

" Even before the embargo, Iraq did not have restaurants of this standard," said Bahraini, looking back at the days before UN sanctions were slapped on oil-rich Iraq for its August 1990 invasion of Kuwait. Rania, 26, was seated near the pool with three friends for a girls' night out. They were not shy to join male diners seeking company in exchange for a free drink or meal.

" I often come here, most of the time for a snack or a cup of coffee," said Rania, who wore heavy makeup, tight black trousers and a blouse with a low neckline.

" I have relatives abroad who send me these clothes, and I only wear them to come to this part of town," said the graduate of Baghdad's school of fine arts. "We've put the embargo behind us. It has turned into a kind of routine." Having long since adapted to life under sanctions, some diners carried long-range cordless phones that for Iraqis are substitutes for the mobiles that have yet to reach the country.

The upmarket strip started to take shape five years ago but it only really took off three years later, as the embargo began to unravel and a class of nouveau riche emerged from fortunes made in trading with Iraq's neighbours.

Britain and the United States are now trying to tighten a weapons ban on Iraq and controls on smuggling outside a UN programme, while abolishing the embargo on civilian trade. Iraq has rejected the so-called system of "smart" sanctions that would put the squeeze on the leadership in Baghdad. While a battle is being waged at the United Nations over the future of sanctions, Baghdadis flock to Arasat Street at night to catch a glimpse of the fancy restaurants or do some window-shopping.

" I would need to use up five years worth of savings to bring my family to one of these restaurants," sighed a passing civil servant. Seated in another restaurant, 43-year-old Khaled Attwan smoked a nargileh, or water pipe, and sipped tea as he retraced his life and recollected a quarter of a century spent in Europe.

" I like it so much in Baghdad, especially in this part of town, that I don't want to go back to France where I've left my wife and son," said Attwan, who returned to his homeland in April 2000.

The Syrian manager of the restaurant, Khaldoun Mjali, explained that "Iraqis want to enjoy themselves, and here in this street they can do that," while acknowledging it was out of reach for Iraq's impoverished middle class. Outside, waiters shooed off a black-clad old beggar woman as shoeshine boys waited patiently for customers to emerge.

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