Cult leaders must now convince world of human clone

Deseret News/December 29, 2002
By Daniel De Vise

Miami -- Now comes the real test for the cult leaders who claim they have cloned a human being: To find a laboratory procedure that will convince the scientific community - beyond question - that the genetic blueprint of the mother and the baby are one and the same.

It will not be enough, experts say, for leaders of the Raelian cult to enlist a journalist and a team of respected scientists to verify their claim. They will have to design an unassailable DNA testing procedure, a design so transparent that a trained observer can track the genetic samples back from the testing apparatus to the bodies of the mother and child.

"You have to make sure there's a chain of evidence," said Dr. Steven Teitelbaum, president of the Federation of American Societies for Experimental Biology. "There has to be a firewall between the people who claim they have accomplished this and the determination of whether or not they have actually accomplished this."

The burden of proof is all the more crucial, academicians say, because of the cloud of skepticism building above virtually every aspect of the cloning claim.

Consider: The Clonaid company announced its findings in a news conference at a beachfront hotel in Hollywood, Fla., not in the far more customary forum of a scholarly journal or in the halls of a university. The announcement comes from a religious cult that believes human beings descended from space aliens. And the independent journalist enlisted to lend credibility to the endeavor, Michael Guillen, is widely derided in scientific circles as overly fond of the paranormal.

Guillen could not be reached Saturday. But in the news conference Friday, Guillen said he had chosen an expert who would draw DNA samples from the baby and her mother. The samples, he said, will be sent to two "world-class, independent testing labs," where other experts will look for a match.

"I want to be certain that at the end of this process, we can all have confidence in the results, one way or another," Guillen said.

To say that the procedure will be scrutinized is a bit of an understatement.

"The question is: How are they going to get the samples, how are the samples going to be handled and how can they be sure that the samples really came from the mother and the child?" said Robert Park, a Maryland physicist who wrote a book on pseudo-science. "The real question in something like this is, 'Is there a way to be deceived?' "

Guillen has stressed that he and the team of scientists who will evaluate the DNA claim are completely independent of Clonaid and the Raelian cult. Scholars say the success of the testing will hinge on whether their credentials withstand scrutiny, and whether the experts are allowed to do the test with proper scientific rigor.

"An absolutely neutral party has to obtain the samples," said Teitelbaum, a pathology professor at Washington University in St. Louis. "From point zero on, the arbitrator must be involved in the whole process. He or she must actually choose the laboratory that is going to do the analysis."

Such details remain largely unclear; Guillen declined an interview request Saturday.

Guillen is among the subjects in Park's book, "Voodoo Science." Park criticizes the award-winning former ABC News science reporter for, among other things, filing a serious report on a purportedly inexhaustible source of energy.

He claims Guillen has also generated irresponsible reports presenting such topics as astrology and psychokinesis "as open scientific questions, which they are not."

A spokesman for Guillen said he is approaching the cloning affair with a open and impartial mind.

"An extraordinary claim has been made," said the spokesman, who asked not to be named. "He's been given an opportunity to run it to the ground. And that's what he's trying to do.'

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