Dressed in white, his thinning hair tied in a bun atop his head, the leader of an obscure religious group stood before a smattering of onlookers in a Montreal hotel to make what he said was a momentous announcement: His group, which believes that human cloning is the key to "eternal life," had found a wealthy American couple willing to finance the group's effort to clone a person for the first time.
The leader, a former sportswriter who now calls himself Rael, was flanked by his scientific adviser and five young women wearing identical necklaces, part of the group's bevy of 50 would-be surrogate mothers who have volunteered to carry cloned human embryos in their wombs. The first to be cloned, Rael said, would be the American couple's child, a 10-month-old girl who recently died from a medical accident, whose cells had been preserved.
"We've got the funding. We anticipate being able to start in October," said Brigitte Boisselier, scientific director for the Raelian religion, which claims to have 50,000 members in 85 countries.
The Raelians offered no evidence that they have any of the medical talent required to reach their goal, or that their claim was anything more than a publicity stunt. Their Sept. 21 announcement went largely unnoticed.
But while no one knows whether this group will really ever try to clone a human being, experts familiar with recent scientific advances say there is no longer much debate that human cloning can be achieved with existing technology. And, in fact, it's probably a group like the Raelians that would be in the best position to pull it off, they said.
That's because the biggest roadblock to human cloning is not that it requires great technical ability--it almost certainly does not--but that it will take many failed pregnancies to get a single success. That, along with society's queasiness about cloning people, has led most mainstream scientific authorities to reject the idea. But a flock of dedicated believers willing to tolerate a few dozen miscarriages along the way could probably clone a person in less than a year, leading scientists said.
"It's a numbers game," said George Seidel, a physiologist and cloning expert at Colorado State University in Fort Collins. "It's very likely that if you did it enough times you could make it work."
The math is straightforward: One female donor can produce about 20 good eggs after a month of hormone treatments. Assume that just five of those eggs can be made into healthy cloned embryos, two embryos are transferred to each surrogate mother, and one out of 100 embryos survives to birth--all reasonable assumptions based on animal data, scientists said. That means 20 human egg donors and 50 surrogate moms would probably be plenty to make a human clone.
Those numbers have brought some experts to the unexpected conclusion that while religious groups have been widely viewed as among the strongest opponents of human cloning, a spiritual group of willing followers might in fact make the perfect human cloning team.
"Just like the Aum Shinrikyo religious group, which recruited highly trained chemists to develop nerve gas for their attack on a Tokyo subway train, I bet that with enough money the Raelians could find the highly trained people they would need to carry out human cloning as well as the numerous women they would need as egg donors and surrogates," said Lee Silver, a Princeton University molecular biologist who has written extensively about human cloning.
Some experts suspect that people could be cloned even more efficiently than most other animals, because human reproductive chemistry is already so well understood.
"People with experience in in vitro fertilization would probably be able to do it," said Michael West, chief executive officer of Advanced Cell Technology of Worcester, Mass., a biotechnology company that does not endorse human cloning but has been cloning human embryo cells with the hope of developing new medical treatments. "The directions are all in the scientific literature. They're not top secret."
Cloning involves the production of a genetic twin from a single cell, such as a skin cell, taken from an adult. Cattle, mice and pigs have all been cloned since scientists in Scotland announced the birth of Dolly the sheep in 1996--the first mammal ever cloned from an adult.
In the simplest technique, scientists use an electrical shock to fuse a skin cell from the animal to be cloned to an egg cell whose genes have been removed. The combined cell starts to grow into an embryo that's genetically identical to the skin-cell donor, and that embryo is transferred to a surrogate mother's uterus to develop.
Most pregnancies with clones end in spontaneous abortion--apparently because of abnormalities in the embryo or the placenta, which connects the embryo to the womb. Surprisingly, however, and important for those who wish to clone humans, the procedure appears to be quite safe for the surrogate mothers. Most miscarriages go unnoticed because they occur so early in pregnancy.
Moreover, almost all clones that have survived to birth have been completely normal. Clones have grown up, mated and given birth to normal offspring. The first cloned mouse, Cumulina, died in May at the ripe old age of 2 1/2--six months older than average for her species. That all suggests that if a human clone were to survive fetal development it would probably go on to lead a physically normal life, scientists said.
Psychological health might be another matter. Scientists and philosophers have questioned whether a child who is a genetic twin of his or her parent might suffer from an intergenerational identity crisis. Some also worry that cloned children might be burdened by parental expectations that they turn out like the person from whom they were cloned--an unrealistic hope because the clone would grow up in different circumstances.
That sense of being a replacement for someone else could be an issue for the American couple contracting with Clonaid, the human cloning company founded by the Raelians. The couple are paying about $500,000 to have their dead daughter cloned, said Rael, who was known as Claude Vorilhon before having what he says was an encounter with extraterrestrials in 1973. But the mother will not be one of the surrogate mothers, he said, so if that pregnancy fails she won't have to endure "losing the same child again." That's a wrongheaded concept, experts said.
"These people feel they're going to be able to replace their daughter by cloning her, but they're wrong," said Jamie Grifo, a fertility specialist at New York University Medical School.
"They want her back, but they're not going to get her back," agreed Paul Berg, the Stanford University biologist who won a Nobel Prize in 1980 for his pioneering work with DNA.
It's impossible to tell if the Raelians really have the means to clone anyone. Boisselier refuses to identify the four scientists she says she has assembled--a biochemist, a geneticist, a cell fusion expert and a French medical doctor. Nor will she identify the American couple.
Even the surrogate volunteers were introduced by their first names only. And Boisselier would not reveal where the effort would occur, other than to say it would be done in a country where human cloning is not illegal.
Human cloning with private funding is not illegal in the United States, but the Food and Drug Administration has said it has the authority to regulate it and approve efforts in advance. That claim has not been tested in court.
In any case, many scientists suspect that fertility specialists in the United States and abroad, who have relatively easy access to spare human eggs, are already toying with cloning techniques in their laboratories, though probably not transferring cloned embryos to women's wombs. Boisselier hinted as much last month when she commented cryptically that the scientists Clonaid has hired "know what they're doing."
Details about the Raelian effort may be in short supply, but money appears to be plentiful at Clonaid. The Raelians, who believe that humans are clones of extraterrestrial scientists, raised about $7 million in donations for a planetary "embassy" three years ago, according to an authoritative Web site on religious movements maintained by University of Virginia sociology professor Jeffrey K. Hadden (http://cti.itc.virginia.edu/jkh8x/soc257/home.htm) . Additional income comes from UFOland, Rael's theme park near Montreal.
Volunteers are apparently plentiful as well. Hundreds of people have signed up on Clonaid's Web site to be cloned, and the company promises to offer the service for $200,000 once it perfects the method. American scientists say they, too, get many requests from people who want to copy themselves or their loved ones.
"I get letters all the time from people who want to be cloned," said Princeton's Silver. "I have no doubt it will happen very soon." Special correspondent Nicolas Van Praet in Montreal contributed to this report.