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Dollar signs driving cloning race

BY TOM MITSOFF

Scientific milestone or immaculate deception?

Thatís what medical, reproductive, religious and ethical experts across the globe are trying to determine in the wake of Fridayís announcement that the first human clone had been born.

But make no mistake, there is a race to clone humans successfully, and it is being driven by the almighty dollar.

The Friday announcement was made by Clonaid, a company which started in the Bahamas in 1997, but left there when pressure from the government made it clear that a human cloning laboratory was not going to be welcome. The company later set up shop in Nitro, W.Va., where a former West Virginia state representative invested $500,000 in the company. A converted schoolhouse was the home for cloning research done on behalf of the former state rep, Mark Hunt, whose 10-month-old son died following heart surgery in 1999. He and his wife were hopeful of finding a way to bring their child back to life through a cloned duplicate after freezing some of his cells.

But that lab was closed after negotiations with the Food and Drug Administration, and the company left the United States in late 2001. Clonaidís present location is unknown, though the company has web sites hosted in South Korea.

Clonaidís founder, Claude Vorilhon, also is the founder of the Raelian religion which espouses the belief that human life was established on Earth more than 250,000 years ago through genetic engineering by aliens. Vorilhon is a former French journalist who has assumed the name Rael -- supposedly given to him by the aliens as their ambassador on Earth after they contacted him in 1973.

"Cloning a baby is just the first step. For me, it's not so important," he told CNN in an interview last week. "It's a good step, but my ultimate goal is to give humanity eternal life through cloning."

Clonaid's web site further explains Rael's goal: "Once we can clone exact replicas of ourselves, the next step will be to transfer our memory and personality into our newly cloned brains, which will allow us to truly live forever. Since we will be able to remember all our past, we will be able to accumulate knowledge ad infinitum.

"Thus today, man's ultimate dream of eternal life, which past religions only promised after death in mythical paradise, becomes a scientific reality."

Two years ago, Vorilhon turned over the operations of Clonaid to Brigitte Boisselier, a former biochemistry professor at Hamilton College in New York and present-day Raelian bishop. She stood in a Holiday Inn in Hollywood, Fla., to announce what -- if true -- is one of the significant scientific advances in the history of mankind.

Somehow, this is not how most of us would have foreseen the announcement of successful human cloning. We would have expected some sort of official government or medical presence to announce such a breakthrough. But what we got was a business announcing a new product.

According to Clonaidís Web site, ďOnce the first baby is born, this service will be offered worldwide, in strict respect of local laws. If you want to reserve and be among the first to receive this service, please contact our Marketing Director. We anticipate that the fees for such a service will be of the order of $200,000 US.Ē

The Web site also claims that the company has more than 250 people on a waiting list ready to pay the going rate, which would indicate potential income of more than $50 million from that list alone. Other reports indicated the waiting list is at 2,000. If the process is proven to have created a healthy, human clone, then the sky is the limit.

Clonaid has been racing Italian fertility doctor Severino Antinori to produce the first cloned baby. Antinori announced in April that a woman was successfully carrying an egg which had been formed through cloning technology. No follow-up announcement has occurred since then on the status of that pregnancy.

Antinori, like Clonaid, is appealing to people who cannot have children due to infertility or because they are a same-sex couple. But itís clear if Clonaidís claims of demand for the service are true, that some company or companies stand to make a fortune off of this new service.

So we are faced with the prospect of humans as products to be produced on order -- just one of the many new horizons and unanswered questions which mankind faces as it heads headlong into this new era of human existence.

Clonaid points to the successful cloning of Dolly the Ewe and other subsequent mammals as evidence that the technology is developing rapidly and safely. But in 1999, research suggested Dolly might be susceptible to premature aging. The possibility that the world's most famous sheep might die early was raised after a study of her genetics. Structures in Dollyís cells called telomeres were slightly shorter than would be expected in a sheep of her age which was born normally.

Itís also important to remember that Dolly was attempt number 227 at cloning a sheep. There were 226 unsuccessful attempts. Boisselier says four clone pregnancies attempted by the company resulted in miscarriage, and five others are still ongoing and viable.

Not only do we have humans as products, but we now have humans -- or at least one -- as an experiment. And, sadly, we now know what the price of a human life is.

Our world will be changed forever when the first human clone is confirmed. If it isnít the baby announced by Clonaid last week, it seems apparent that it wonít be long before we are faced head-on with all the unanswered medical, ethical and religious questions that human life which originates from an unfertilized egg pose. And it's being driven by the economic theory of supply and demand and the vision of a man who believes we are all descendants of aliens.

This column was written December 29, 2002, and published in several print publications across the country.

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