Despite venomous quarrels, bitter hostility and mutual incomprehension amongst the doctors, lawyers, scientists and philosophers who wrangle about bioethics, there is one thing on which they can agree: Panayiotis Zavos is a bad, bad dude. The controversial American fertility expert, who combines technical expertise with the bumptious manners of a carpet salesman on late- night TV, has become notorious for attempting to clone humans — unsuccessfully, so far, despite a number of tantalising press conferences. None of Zavos’s work has thus far been corroborated by other scientists.
This week Dr Zavos burst into London with another tabloid shocker, proclaiming that he had created cow-human hybrids using cow eggs and human DNA. Two of the three procedures had grown to the blastocyst stage before he destroyed them. Since Dr Zavos announced last September that he had created hundreds of these hybrids, this was hardly news. The ghoulish novelty for August was that he had attempted to clone three dead people — an 11-year-old girl and a 33-year-old girl who had died in road accidents and a baby — using DNA provided by grieving relatives. The baby’s DNA came from a dummy and nasal extractor.
Specialists in reproductive medicine joined in a chorus of outrage over the exploitation of vulnerable people — especially when Dr Zavos was forced to admit that the parents of the dead infant and girl had paid him to conduct the experiments. “This must be the first time I’ve heard of a scientist receiving donated tissue for research and the donor paying. If this was justifiable research it would be paid by funding bodies,” said Dr Simon Fishel, a London IVF doctor. “If this is valid research, why is he using corpses?”
In an effort to quash attempts by other “cowboy cloners” to clone humans, the Royal Society this week called for a UN ban on reproductive cloning. The UN will be debating the issue in October.
The InterAcademy Panel, an umbrella organisation for national science academies, has also condemned reproductive cloning ahead of the UN debate by reissuing a policy written in 2003. However, the wording of its declaration is ambiguous and even contradictory. At one point it says that a ban on reproductive cloning should not be lifted even if the procedure were to become medically safe. But it concludes that a ban “should be reviewed periodically in the light of scientific and social developments”.
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