BMJ 2002;324:868 ( 13 April )
Roger Dobson, Abergavenny
Leading scientists are concerned that reports of a woman being pregnant with a cloned baby could lead to a halt in stem cell research in the United States.
They fear that controversy over reports of what would be the world's first cloned human could tip the US Senate in favour of banning the cloning of embryos for stem cell research. Such a ban would seriously undermine work that offers the possibility of cures for many diseases.
"My worry is that it is going to do very severe damage to the legitimate application of cloning," said Dr Robert Lanza, head of science at Advanced Cell Technology, the American biotechnology company regarded as one of the world leaders in the science of cloning. "There is a vote coming up in the US Senate in a few weeks on cloning and at present it is pretty close. It is not good timing for this kind of claim to appear.
"Tens of millions of people will benefit from this technology. If the vote goes negative, it could effectively stop research in the United States, which has the most creative biotech sector. It would be a very great shame. Research here suggests that 3000 Americans a day die from diseases that could benefit from this technology."
Italian fertility specialist Dr Severino Antinori was reported to have claimed last week that a woman was eight weeks pregnant with a cloned baby. He refused to comment further after the announcement, which was made at a meeting in the United Arab Emirates.
When the BMJ contacted Dr Antinori's office in Rome and rang his mobile phone number, he would not comment. A spokesman for his collaborator Dr Panos Zavos at the Andrology Institute of America in Lexington, Kentucky, said Dr Zavos was not available for comment.
Prominent cloning scientists are doubtful. Dr Ian Wilmut, who created Dolly, the world's first cloned sheep, in the United Kingdom in 1996, said: "I am very sceptical. I find it very difficult to take him seriously at all. He has been saying for months, bordering on years, that he has been cloning animals.
"He has made claims that seemed at the time to be very unlikely, and he has never substantiated those claims. I will take him seriously when he first puts an accurate detailed description of an animal cloning experiment into the scientific literature."
Dr Lanza said: "It is extremely unlikely he has had any success cloning a human fetus. I am not impressed. In all likelihood, one of the women in the programme got pregnant in the old fashioned way. I would be very surprised if all the couples involved abstained from sex."
The concern now is over the US Senate vote on stem cells. The Senate is expected to debate competing bills on cloning. All the bills propose outlawing cloning babies, but one goes further and forbids cloning human embryos for stem cell researchso called therapeutic cloning.
The vote is said to be too close to call.
© BMJ 2002