Controversial US fertility doctor Panayiotis Zavos has again provoked disbelief and anger, after announcing that he has transferred a cloned human embryo into a woman. Zavos, who announced in September 2003 that he had a cloned human embryo in frozen storage, has not yet produced any evidence to back up his claims. But at a press conference held in London on Saturday, he told journalists that he had used a fresh cloned embryo in the latest attempt, and that the earlier clone remains frozen. However, many doctors and scientists have dismissed the announcement as a publicity stunt, while health secretary John Reid condemned the attempt as a 'gross misuse of genetic science'. Animal experiments have shown that procedures used to clone mammals have an extremely low success rate, and carry a high risk of fetal abnormalities.
Zavos said that the process used to create the embryo was similar to that used to produce Dolly the cloned sheep, but with 'some modifications'. He claims to have taken the genetic material of a man's skin cell, and 'fused' it with an egg cell emptied of its own DNA. The resulting cloned embryo, he says, was then implanted into the womb of the man's 35-year-old wife. A pregnancy test will apparently be carried out sometime next week, although Zavos has not revealed the nationality or whereabouts of the couple involved.
In December 2002, the religious cult-backed firm Clonaid announced that it had produced the world's first cloned human, a baby girl named Eve. But the claims were met with scepticism by scientists, who have also expressed disbelief at Zavos' latest announcement: 'Zavos does not represent mainstream science, and what he and his colleagues are doing is seeking publicity rather than advancing science' said fertility expert Peter Braude, of King's College London. Others have criticised Zavos for falsely raising the hopes of people affected by infertility. UK cloning expert Wolf Reik, of the Babraham Institute in Cambridge, said that the doctor was 'exploiting the emotional pressures of parents desperate to have children'.
At the same conference, Zavos also announced that he was preparing to carry out human 'embryo splitting': dividing an IVF embryo into two, so that one could be used to create a baby, and the other stored as a potential source of stem cells. Working with UK gynaecologist Paul Rainsbury, Zavos intends to launch a service whereby couples can have a baby that has stored, genetically identical embryo stem cells that could be used to treat future illnesses. Richard Kennedy, secretary of the British Fertility Society, said that such a procedure, which occurs naturally when identical twins arise, would not be legal in the UK. He added that 'it is not acceptable practice in the context of an artificial clinical procedure. We would condemn it'.