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Friday, March 09, 2001

U.S., Italian Experts Plan to Clone Humans

by Jane Barrett

Reuters - Scientists from the United States and Italy said on Friday they planned to create the first cloned human beings, despite religious outrage and opposition from many scientists.

American Panayiotis Zavos and Italian Severino Antinori, who has already gained notoriety by helping a 62-year-old woman give birth, said they wanted to clone babies to help infertile couples have children.

"Cloning may be considered as the last frontier to overcome male sterility and give the possibility to infertile males to pass on their genetic pattern," Antinori told a packed auditorium of scientists and journalists.

"Some people say we are going to clone the world, but this isn't true... I'm asking all of us in the scientific community to be prudent and calm," he said.

"We're talking science, we're not here to create a fuss."

Antinori and Zavos, a reproductive scientist based in Kentucky who runs companies working on genetics and cloning, say 10 infertile couples have volunteered to participate in the experiment to produce cloned infants.

The plan has come under heavy fire from mainstream scientists and religious groups, with the Vatican describing their proposals as "grotesque."

Bishop Elio Sgreccia, head of the John Paul II Institute for Bioethics at Rome's Gemelli hospital, said human cloning raised profoundly disturbing ethical issues.

"Those who made the atomic bomb went ahead in spite of knowing about its terrible destruction," he told Reuters Television before the cloning meeting started. "But this doesn't mean that it was the best choice for humanity."

"The forecasts (about human cloning) sadden us but don't scare us," he said, adding it would be a betrayal if the Roman Catholic Church's voice was not heard in the debate.

Dividing Cells

The scientists have said they will conduct the experiment in an unidentified Mediterranean country in order to try to escape the mounting flak, and since several countries already have banned human cloning research.

Dr. Ian Wilmut, who created Dolly, the world's first cloned sheep, said it took 277 tries to get it right. Other cloning attempts have ended in malformed animals and experts say the technique fails in 97 percent of cases.

Last year, Britain proposed allowing human cells to be cloned for research purposes while other European countries, including Spain and France have banned human cloning altogether.

Zavos told a conference in January that he and Antinori would use regular cells or undifferentiated stem cells from a man and insert them into an ovacyte, a woman's egg stripped of its genetic material.

Zavos said the cell would be stimulated to divide and create an embryo equipped with all the specialty cells which make up a copy of the man, and then implanted in the woman's uterus.

The woman could also be the one cloned, he said, depending on a couple's choice.

"It's not the easiest thing," he told the scientific conference in January. "The stability 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."

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