In the six years since scientists in Scotland shocked the world with their announcement that they had cloned a sheep, scientists have cloned seven species and have even made clones of clones. Dolly the sheep is a grandmother, entering old age. And most scientists say they think humans, too, will be cloned.
But cloning experts interviewed yesterday say they strongly doubt assertions made at a news conference that a 31-year-old woman has given birth to her own clone, a baby that is genetically identical to her. Clonaid , a company associated with a group that believes that space travelers created the human race by cloning, said yesterday that its scientists had created the clone but offered no proof, would not say who had done the work or describe their methods.
"I would be really really surprised if it stands," said Dr. Tanja Dominko, a cloning expert who is chief science officer at Cellthera, a newly formed company in Southbridge, Mass. "I don't believe it for a minute."
Dr. Brigid Hogan, the chairwoman of the department of cell biology at the Duke University Medical Center, was also highly skeptical. Dr. Hogan, who was a member of a recent National Academy of Sciences committee that reported on human cloning, said the group interviewed Dr. Brigitte Boisselier, the head of Clonaid.
"I did not come away thinking that this was a group that would clone," Dr. Hogan said. "Let's see some data."
Although several species of animals have been cloned, until yesterday no one had claimed to have cloned a chimpanzee or other primate, the closest human relatives in the animal kingdom. And many clones have turned out to suffer sometimes devastating congenital defects, a situation that has led many experts in animal cloning to condemn human reproduction by cloning as unethical.
To clone, scientists slip the nucleus of an adult cell, like a skin cell, into an unfertilized egg from which its own genetic material has been removed. Then, if stimulated to act like a fertilized egg, the newly altered genetic material can then direct the egg to divide and grow into an embryo, then a fetus, then a newborn, if all goes well. Yet, as scientists have discovered, only rarely does all go well.
In animal work so far only about 1 to 5 percent of cloning attempts succeed, said Dr. Randall Prather, a cloning expert at the University of Missouri. That is, for every 100 eggs, one to five clones are born.
Most attempts fail early on, when the embryo first starts to develop. But many die as fetuses, and even after birth, things can go awry. Some of cloned animals have died in infancy or soon afterward with serious medical problems, like defects in their lungs or immune systems.
Scientists suspect that the problem is that the egg is trying to reprogram the adult cell's genetic material so quickly that errors can creep in, making some genes turn on too late in development, others too early and others not at all. Some animals have defied attempts at cloning and many cloning efforts took years, and thousands of attempts, before they succeeded. When they did succeed, it was not always clear why. Nor was it clear which animals would be easier to clone and which harder.
Dr. Jacques Cohen, the scientific director of assisted reproduction at St. Barnabas Medical Center in Livingston, N.J., said he that if he did not know about the difficulty researchers had trying to clone monkeys, he would have thought that humans would be easy to clone because fertility experts have spent years perfecting techniques to handle human eggs in the laboratory and to grow human embryos for a few days in a lab. But the monkey work, he said, gave him pause.
Dr. Dominko, one of the principle researchers trying to clone monkeys, spent three years, and made more than 300 attempts, to no avail. Working at the Oregon Primate Research Center, at a well-financed laboratory, she and her colleagues never got a single pregnancy. Instead, the cloning efforts produced grotesquely abnormal embryos, some with cells with no chromosomes, some with multiple nuclei, including one cell had nine nuclei. She called the embryos her "gallery of horrors."
Yet cloning also has its successes, starting with Dolly, clones that were born healthy and live long and apparently normal lives. There is also no secret to how to clone.
"There are hundreds of publications describing how to do it," said Dr. Mark West- husin, a cloning expert at Texas A&M University who has cloned cattle, goats and a cat. "The basic techniques and protocols are out there."
Human cloning also would require embryologists and physicians with expertise in the delicate tasks of manipulating eggs and even poking them with needles. Those experts are everywhere, scientists said, working at fertility clinics.
"There are lots of people who have these skills," Dr. Westhusin said.
Dr. Rawlins said that while he was skeptical of the Clonaid assertions, he also thought that humans would eventually be cloned. "It's a matter of technique and time," he said. "The genie is out of the bottle."