WASHINGTON — Scientists who attempt to clone animals have a success rate of just 3% — at best — and often produce grotesquely deformed creatures susceptible to a host of fatal illnesses.

That was the testimony of several reproductive-technology experts reporting to a March 28 hearing of the U.S. House's Energy and Commerce Committee.

The hearing brought to the fore bitter divisions among leading reproductive technology scientists — some of whom want to go ahead with human cloning initiatives despite the medical and ethical horror stories from the animal studies.

Ryuzo Yanagimachi of the University of Hawaii said that mice clones can suddenly become grotesquely obese, and often have developmental difficulties. Mark Westhusin of Texas A&M University said cow clones often have enlarged hearts or poorly developed lungs.

Lawmakers on the committee reacted with horror. In the words of Illinois Democrat Bobby Rush, “Human cloning must be banned now and forever.” Oklahoma Republican J.C. Watts added: “Dolly the sheep will learn to fly before the U.S. House of Representatives condones human cloning.”

But Louisville, Ky., fertility doctor Panos Zavos, one of the two leaders of an international project to bring a human clone to birth in the next two years, insisted to the committee that “we have no intention of stepping over dead bodies or deformed babies in order to accomplish this.”

Zavos told the Register that scientists warning of grave risks involved with cloning were “irresponsible” and using “scare tactics.”

Genetic Gambit

Cloning has long since moved from the science-fiction section of the library to the laboratory. The most common technique involves removing the nucleus from an egg cell (enucleation), replacing it with the nucleus of an adult cell (nuclear transfer) and stimulating the newly “reprogrammed” cell so it begins dividing.

At the hearing, Rudolph Jaenisch of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology testified that the reason cloning is so risky is that the very rapid “reprogramming” process opens the door to an extraordinary number of genetic abnormalities.

Another congressional witness, Richard Rawlins, director of the in vitro fertilization laboratory of the Rush Health System in Chicago, told the Register that proponents of human cloning have no way to screen out genetically flawed clones.

“The prospect that [they] can actually test for inherent genetic damage in the cloned embryo to me is ridiculous at one end and premature at best. It's not to say that in the future, with the advent of the human genome being documented, that probes like that might not be available. … But think of the numbers [of tests] that would be needed to establish the normality” of the clone.

Panos Zavos responded, “They're saying that we need to check for 30,000 genes, which of course is a joke, if you know anything about genetics. If reprogramming is the problem we will solve the problem with reprogramming.”

“We think we're coming up with a breakthrough on that,” he added. “We're doing the reprogramming now before we do the nuclear transfer.”

Although there appears to be a consensus in the mainstream scientific community against current human cloning proposals, its seems most scientists are not opposed to human cloning in and of itself, and would approve of it if it were technologically viable.

Rawlins said, “If you talk to cell biologists, I doubt that if the procedures were all worked out and everything was fine, that they would have major objections to it. What they're really objecting to is the gross overstatement and oversimplifications of the necessary steps needed to produce a normal individual.”

He suggested that Zavos and his partner, Italian reproductive technology specialist Severino Antinori, are “rogues” who are motivated by the desire for notoriety and profit.

Referring to in vitro fertilization clinics in the private sector, Rawlins said, “It's a money-making business, and anyone who thinks that it isn't, or claims that this is something noble, is telling you a lie. It's strictly a mercenary operation. … I have no doubt that, if there's money to be made by doing a human clone, somebody's going to do it. They will put together [financing] and they will step over the bodies of the abnormal. It's going to look like a scene from ‘The X-Files.’”

David Curtin writes from Toronto.