Controversial fertility doctor claims to have implanted women with cloned human embryos

23 April 2009

Controversial reproductive biologist and fertility doctor Panayiotis Zavos claims he will be able to produce the first cloned babies. He was filmed for a documentary by the Discovery Channel. He claimed to be carrying out the cloning and implantation procedure. The filming took place in a secret laboratory in the Middle East. The documentary was aired on 22 April 2009.

In the documentary, Dr Zavos claims to have created cloned embryos of three dead people, including a 10-year-old girl called Cady who died in a car crash.

Dr Zavos claims to have cloned 14 human embryos, implanting 11 of them into the wombs of four women who paid up to £50,000. The women, including one from Britain, did not become pregnant. However, Dr Zavos said this was just the ‘first chapter’ in his attempts to produce a baby cloned from the skin cells of its ‘mother’ or ‘father’.

“I may not be the one that does it, but a cloned child is coming,” he told The Independent. “There is no way it will not happen. If we can intensify our efforts we will have a cloned baby within a year or two, but I don’t know whether we can intensify our efforts to that extent.”

Dr Zavos describes the process as involving the removal of genetic material from a woman’s egg and replacing it with a skin cell from the woman or her partner. A jolt from an electric current then makes the egg divide and develop into an embryo. It is illegal in many countries, including Britain, to transfer cloned embryos into the human womb. Other researchers have created human cloned embryos but only for stem cell research in the lab. Such embryos are not allowed to develop.

Apart from the serious ethical considerations, there is universal agreement among most mainstream fertility and cloning experts that reproductive cloning is too dangerous to attempt, both for the mother and for any babies created. Experience in animals has demonstrated time and time again that the technique usually fails: many embryos are malformed, and many are abnormally oversized, posing risks both to offspring and mother.

Dr Zavos’s attempts were condemned by scientists.

In 2002, Spyros Simitis characterised Zavos’s claims as ‘scientific barbarism’. He expressed his opinion that if human cloning were to become reality, it would mean the ‘end of human freedom and evolution’. He also referred to the possible use of cloning by governments for controlling and shaping society according to the government’s will.

Professor Wolf Reik, head of the epigenetics and chromatin programme at the Babraham Institute, Cambridge, said a successful clone would be no different from a naturally conceived identical twin:

“But there are important ethical issues here that must be considered. For example, cloning a child who has died will create a genetically identical person; but it will not be the same child. This is most certainly not a way of bringing people back from the dead.”

Professor Peter Braude, director of the centre for preimplantation genetic diagnosis at Guy’s and St Thomas’ in London, said:

“He’s absolutely hell-bent on trying to achieve this and he knows that there are significant risks.
“Who is the experiment here? It’s the poor woman and the child involved.”

Dr Stephen Minger, director of King’s College London’s stem cell biology laboratory, said Zavos had the necessary technical skills, “but the real problem is the safety issues associated with this.” Cloning animals, famously successful with the birth of Dolly the sheep, has in reality been associated with huge problems.

“This process has resulted in animals that have genetic abnormalities,” he said. “The rate of spontaneous miscarriage is really huge, there is often no implantation, you get late miscarriage, which is unusual, and a lot of postnatal death.”

In 2003, Dr Zavos had published his paper reporting that he had produced the world’s first human cloned embryo intended for reproduction. He later revealed that the procedure had not worked.

Subsequently, he reported having produced hybrid cloned embryos by combining human
cells with cow eggs

In 2006, Dr Zavos told The Guardian he had transferred cloned embryos to five women, including one 52-year-old from Britain.

Robert Winston, Emeritus Professor of fertility studies at Imperial College London, said:

“I do not know of any credible evidence that suggests Dr Zavos can clone a human being. This seems to be yet another one of his claims to get repeated publicity.”

Professor Azim Surani, from Cambridge University, said the claims showed acomplete lack of responsibility.” He said:

“If true, Zavos has again failed to observe the universally accepted ban on human cloning, which was agreed because most of the resulting embryos from such animal experiments are abnormal.
“This is yet another episode designed to gain maximum publicity without performing rigorous animal experiments or presenting it for peer review in a scientific journal.”

In 2001, Arthur Caplan, a University of Pennsylvania bioethicist, also testified before US Congress, saying: “I think he is the most dangerous of the current fringe proponents of cloning, because he knows more, stretches the facts and seems to be wallowing in a mix of publicity and fund-raising that rests on a foundation of hype.”

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