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LIFE DIGEST: ‘Scary’ account of first human cloning effort published; E.U. to continue stem cell funding; womb transplants for women may be possible in 5 years

“[University of Kentucky scientist Zavos] told me then that he didn’t have time to think about the ethical issues of human cloning; he was too busy pushing the scientific envelope.”
Ben Mitchell
Trinity Evangelical Divinity School
WASHINGTON (BP)–The first published account of an attempt to clone a human baby demonstrates how far short of his goal a would-be cloning pioneer fell but how dangerous he remains, biomedical specialists said.

Panos Zavos of the University of Kentucky reported July 20 in a little-known scientific journal he was able to produce an embryo who reached the four-cell stage before being implanted in a 35-year-old woman’s womb. Blood tests two weeks later showed the woman was not pregnant, according to the Guardian Unlimited, a British online newspaper.

Zavos told the Guardian he had since transferred cloned embryos to five more women, but none had become pregnant.

“It is scary,” Robert Lanza said of the report, according to The Boston Globe. Lanza is vice president for research at Advanced Cell Technology, a Worcester, Mass., corporation that is conducting cloning research. “It tells you that he is an amateur playing in this field, but on the other hand he has a knowledge base that you can’t dismiss.”

Southern Baptist bioethicist C. Ben Mitchell recalled his encounter with Zavos shortly after the cloning of the first mammal was announced in 1997.

“I’ll never forget sitting with him in the green room of the studios of Kentucky Public Television right after the cloning of Dolly the sheep,” said Mitchell, associate professor of bioethics at Trinity Evangelical Divinity School in suburban Chicago. “He told me then that he didn’t have time to think about the ethical issues of human cloning; he was too busy pushing the scientific envelope. That sent shivers down my spine. Science divorced from ethics is a tragedy in the making.

“Two things make Zavos dangerous,” Mitchell told Baptist Press. “First, he admits that he is in the race to clone human beings so he can be the first to do it. He’s a narcissist. Second, his zeal is not harnessed to wisdom. He will do almost anything to be the ‘father of human cloning.’”

Mitchell also is a consultant for the Southern Baptist Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission.

In the article in Archives of Andrology, Zavos and his research partner, Karl Illmensee, said they used the same method in their experiments that was used by Scottish scientists to clone Dolly, the Guardian reported. Later attempts have produced embryos of 10 to 12 cells apiece, according to the Guardian.

There is widespread opposition to cloning that would result in the birth of a human baby. Many foes of reproductive cloning fear it would produce children with health maladies. Cloning for research purposes, however, has more support. Research cloning can produce many more stem cells in the effort to find therapies for various diseases, advocates of the practice contend. Extracting stem cells from embryos destroys the tiny human beings, however.

The ERLC and other pro-life organizations oppose all human cloning and are seeking a comprehensive ban.

E.U. FUNDS RESEARCH -– The European Union decided July 24 to continue funding embryonic stem cell research on a limited basis, thereby maintaining the status quo.

The 25-country organization voted to designate money from its $65 billion research budget despite opposition, the Associated Press reported. The approval came with restrictions, including a ban on reproductive cloning research and genetic modifications.

In addition, the funds may not be used for experiments specifically intended to destroy human embryos, according to AP. Grants for “subsequent steps” that involve embryonic stem cells discarded by fertility clinics would be permitted, Reuters news service reported.

Poland, a leading foe of the proposal, said it was contradictory because a human embryo would still have had to be killed in order to make stem cells available, Reuters reported.

The procurement of stem cells from embryos destroys the tiny human beings.

Five countries -– Austria, Lithuania, Malta, Poland and Slovakia –- voted against the measure. Germany, Italy and Slovenia withdrew their opposition at the last minute and voted for the new rules, according to AP.

The funds will be granted only to E.U. members that permit embryonic stem cell research. The rules were approved through 2013.

President Bush vetoed July 19 a bill that would have provided federal funds for some stem cell research that destroys embryos.

Unlike research using embryos, extracting stem cells from non-embryonic sources -– such as umbilical cord blood, placentas, fat and bone marrow -– does not harm the donor and has produced treatments for at least 72 ailments, according to Do No Harm, a coalition promoting ethics in research. These include spinal cord injuries, rheumatoid arthritis, lupus, multiple sclerosis and sickle cell anemia.

Embryonic research has yet to treat any diseases in human beings and has been plagued by the development of tumors in lab animals.

WOMB TRANSPLANTS? -– A researcher predicted recently that womb transplants for women may be possible within five years.

A Swedish scientist reported June 20 on successful experiments to remove uteruses from and return them to sheep for the first time, according to the Telegraph, a British online newspaper. Mats Brannstrom and his fellow researchers removed the uteruses of 12 sheep and kept them outside the animals’ bodies for an hour before returning them to the sheep, the newspaper reported. The transplantations were successful in 10 of the sheep, according to the report.

Brannstrom presented his report at the yearly meeting of the European Society for Human Reproduction and Embryology in Prague, Czechoslovakia.

Experiments on primates will be necessary before any are conducted on human beings, according to the report. Three years ago, Brannstrom said womb transplants had been performed on mice.