NewScientist.com - NEWSFLASH
Controversial fertility specialist Severino Antinori tells a conference his human cloning programme is at "a very advanced stage"
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A woman taking part in a controversial cloning programme is eight weeks pregnant, claims Severino Antinori, one of the two fertility specialists leading the programme.
"One woman among thousands of infertile couples in the programme is eight weeks pregnant," Antinori is reported as saying at a meeting in the United Arab Emirates. If true, this would represent the first human cloning pregnancy.
Antinori's office in Rome refuses to confirm or deny the report to New Scientist but said "call back in two weeks". At the meeting, Antinori refused to reveal the nationality of the woman - or her location.
Almost 5000 couples are now involved in the programme, Antinori said. His colleague, Panos Zavos at the Andrology Institute of America in Lexington, Kentucky, had previously announced that the pair planned to clone a baby by Christmas 2001.
If confirmed, the pregnancy will cause uproar. Many countries have banned reproductive cloning and most prominent scientists have warned of the high risk of severe birth defects, as well as the low chance of any live birth. The technology is also opposed by many on ethical grounds.
In November 2001, biotech company Advanced Cell Technology in Massachusetts, published a much-criticised study detailing the creation of three cloned human embryos of just six cells each. Chinese scientists have also claimed to have created early human clones. The purpose of this research is to produce early clones for the extraction of stem cells, for medical treatments. The cloned embryos would be destroyed after just a few weeks.
But Antinori's plans to use cloning to produce a live birth have been denounced by most cloning and fertility specialists, primarily because serious defects have been found in many cloned animals.
In June 2001, the UK's Royal Society produced a report recommending a worldwide ban on human reproductive cloning. "Our experience with animals suggests there would be a very real danger of creating seriously handicapped individuals if anyone tries to implant cloned embryos into the womb," said Richard Gardner of Oxford University, who chaired the Royal Society panel.
Harry Griffin of the Roslin Institute in Scotland, which created Dolly the sheep, told New Scientist last year: "There is evidence of healthy clones, but there would have to be a lot more evidence of normality in a number of different species before you could claim the technique was safe for use in women."