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Claim of Cloned Baby Appears to Be a Hoax

More doubt is cast after scientists who were to conduct DNA tests are denied access to family.

January 07, 2003|Aaron Zitner | Times Staff Writer

WASHINGTON — A company's claim to have produced the world's first cloned baby fell further into doubt Monday when the man it had selected to confirm the child was a true clone said he had stopped working on the project.

Michael Guillen, a former science editor for ABC News, said a team of scientists he had assembled to conduct DNA testing had been denied access to the alleged cloned baby and her family. He said the cloning claim might be "part of an elaborate hoax."

The decision means that, 11 days after causing a worldwide furor over the prospect of human cloning, the company has produced no names, photographs, scientific evidence or a process for obtaining data to verify its claim. In fact, it has not even shown that a child was born.

The Las Vegas-based company, Clonaid, which is affiliated with a religious group called the Raelian Movement, had announced the birth Dec. 27 and said it would provide proof by Jan. 5 that the child was a clone.

Critics of Clonaid said Guillen's decision showed the announcement was a hoax designed to gain publicity for the Raelians, who have a decade-long history of developing schemes to win media coverage, in part to attract members.

Since announcing the birth, Clonaid and the Raelians, who believe that life on Earth was created by scientists from another planet, have received hours of exposure on TV news programs and have been the subjects of hundreds of newspaper articles.

"I think we've all been had," said Dr. Robert Lanza, vice president for scientific development at Advanced Cell Technology Inc., a Worcester, Mass., company that is using cloning techniques in disease research.

An independent DNA test "was their last chance for any credibility," Lanza said, "and I think we're at the point where they have absolutely no credibility left."

"This story has been losing altitude like a bowling ball going down a flight of stairs," said Daniel Perry, executive director of the Alliance for Aging Research. "This reduces their credibility to less than zero."

Clonaid has said that parents of the reputed clone, nicknamed Eve, were having second thoughts about a DNA test because a Florida lawyer had asked a court to appoint a guardian for the baby. The parents fear that a DNA test could aid the lawyer's case, the company said.

In a clone, all the genes responsible for building and operating the body come from a single parent, rather than half from the mother and half from the father. Clonaid said all of Eve's genes came from her mother -- an unidentified woman who donated DNA to make a cloned embryo and then carried the embryo to term.

A DNA test could prove the child was a true clone by showing that portions of the baby's DNA matched those of the mother. Such tests are relatively simple.

Lanza said Guillen had solicited knowledgeable scientists about how to conduct DNA testing so there would be no doubt about the results. The testing was to be "blind" -- testing labs would not know which DNA samples came from the mother, which from the child and which from other family members. In addition, the tests would include samples from people not related to the family to ensure that the labs could distinguish among samples that were known not to match.

"He was really trying to do this correctly," Lanza said.

In a written statement, Guillen said: "The team of scientists has had no access to the alleged family and, therefore, cannot verify firsthand the claim that a human baby has been cloned. In other words, it's still entirely possible Clonaid's announcement is part of an elaborate hoax intended to bring publicity to the Raelian Movement."

Guillen, who holds a doctorate from Cornell University in Ithaca, N.Y., said he was willing to revive his testing plan if he is given access to the child.

Scientists Skeptical

Many scientists have been skeptical of Clonaid's claims. Researchers at UC San Francisco had tried and failed to produce human embryos, and scientists at Advanced Cell Technology, among the most experienced in the world, had been unable to grow a cloned human embryo larger than eight cells.

Moreover, Clonaid claimed it had transferred cloned embryos into 10 women and achieved five pregnancies -- a success rate better than that of any fertility clinic.

At the same time, many scientists believe that, given enough tries, an experienced technician could produce a human clone. ACT had the cells on hand to make only 19 attempts at cloning; Clonaid and other teams might have had more materials available.

Perry said he hoped the media would demand proof before publicizing claims of other groups that say they are trying to produce cloned children.

"They've taken the media for a ride, and this has been a big game," Lanza said of Clonaid. "But it has done severe damage to an area of medical research that has shown tremendous promise for alleviating pain and suffering. It has caused so much outcry that it will put pressure on Congress to ban ... cloning."

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