Are Raelians cloning an earlier hoax?

Recent claims highlight a fraud from 1978 - and the challenge of proof

The Washington Post/December 31, 2002
By Rick Weiss

For all the speed with which science was progressing, virtually no one had thought it would happen so soon. Yet there it was in huge block letters on the front page of the New York Post: The world's first human clone had been born.

The next day, The Washington Post and other newspapers across the country ran with the story about the rogue scientists who had cloned a human on an undisclosed island. A spokesman connected to the effort refused to identify the infant, citing a desire to "protect the child from harmful publicity." Legislators quickly called for a ban on human cloning. And just as immediately came warnings that such a ban might choke off medically promising research. December 2002? Try March 1978.

Indeed, when representatives of the Raelians, an extraterrestrial-worshipping religious group, announced last week that they had created the world's first human clone, their claim was itself a clone of sorts - a clone of a very similar claim made a quarter century ago, and one that ultimately proved to be a hoax.

Room for Mischief

It took three months in 1978 for scientists to pick apart the science behind that purported achievement, and three years before a court definitively declared the claim to be fraudulent.

Now, with the availability of modern DNA fingerprinting, it should take just a few days for scientists to determine whether the alleged clone is indeed a genetic replica of her mother. But there is still room for error in the testing process, and even more room for mischief, scientists warned. If the radical claim of human cloning is to be believed, experts said, it will be important that every detail about how the testing was done be made open to outside scientific scrutiny.

"This is a chance to educate the audience about the nature of credible evidence," said Harold Varmus, president of Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center in New York and a vocal proponent of full disclosure of scientific data.

Evidence was in short supply in 1978 when the New York Post's headline - "BABY BORN WITHOUT A MOTHER: He's first human clone" - sent the world into a fretful tizzy. The newspaper had caught wind of a book that was about to be published by J.B. Lippincott Co., "In His Image: The Cloning of Man." The author, David Rorvik, was a science reporter who had previously worked for the New York Times and Time magazine.

Rorvik told the tale of an American millionaire who he said hired him to set up a lab on an unnamed Pacific island. There, he wrote, after five years of effort, a team of scientists successfully cloned the man from one of his cells, creating a healthy baby boy in a surrogate mother.

That case was unraveled not by scientists but by a court-ordered demand for evidence that led to a legal ruling in 1981 that the story was "a fraud and a hoax," said Alex Boese, author of "The Museum of Hoaxes." In theory, at least, DNA fingerprinting should bring a speedier and more scientific solution to the current mystery. All that is needed are a couple of blood or tissue samples from the mother and the newborn. If genetic tests show any differences in their DNA patterns, then the baby is not the woman's clone.

It takes just a few hours to conduct the necessary tests. If done right, scientists said, there will be no room for discussion or debate, and iffy results should be eyed with suspicion.

"Given how simple it would be to verify this claim scientifically, if the results are ambiguous or not unanimously accepted by the scientific community, then there's a prima facie case they have something to hide," said Eric Lander, director of the Whitehead/MIT genome sequencing center in Cambridge, Mass.

Still, Lander and others noted, two matching samples do not by themselves constitute proof. "They may show two DNA gels with two identical patterns, but that's very easy to do - just take two samples from the same person," Varmus said.

'Chain of Custody' Crucial

So as part of the independent validation process that has been promised, experts said, it will be necessary to track the "chain of custody" of the blood or skin samples from the moment they are retrieved from the mother and newborn to the moment they are fed into a DNA analyzer. If any specimen is out of sight for even a minute, suspect foul play, said James Randi, founder of the James Randi Educational Foundation, a Fort Lauderdale, Fla., group that polices paranormal claims and pseudoscientific phenomena.

Other problems could also lead to a false conclusion that the girl is a clone. The chemical reaction used to amplify tiny amounts of DNA in preparation for genetic testing is notoriously prone to cross-contamination between samples. That can lead to a false reading of genetic identity in two samples that are, in fact, nonidentical. Multiple tests, by multiple labs, are usually required to ensure accuracy.

One could even imagine extreme intentional acts of deception, such as an "exchange transfusion" - a radical medical procedure occasionally necessitated soon after birth in which a newborn's blood supply is almost entirely replaced by another's - involving a covert transfusion from, say, her mother's identical twin before genetic testing is done. To guard against blood chicanery, some scientists yesterday recommended doing the genetic tests not on blood cells but on skin cells from inside the baby's cheek. The testing is to be coordinated by a former ABC science correspondent, Michael Guillen, who has said that Clonaid, the company behind the purported cloning, has given him free reign over the process. Guillen holds a doctorate in physics, math and astronomy from Cornell University, but some observers don't have much faith in him.

"This man has a reputation," said Randi, the Florida fraud-buster. "He has supported every bit of pseudoscience that's come along. Scientology was just fine with him. Human cloning by a religious cult is right up his alley, and to put him in charge of this kind of thing is like putting the fox in charge of the hen house."

In 1997, Randi's foundation awarded Guillen its annual "Pigasus" award (a pig with wings, as in "When Pigs Fly," the gold standard of impossibility), for his "indiscriminate promotion of pseudoscience and quackery." Guillen defended his reporting in a 1997 article for the American Physical Society, maintaining he was rigorous but open-minded. He could not be reached yesterday for comment.

It's possible the Raelians really have cloned a person, scientists said, through a combination of skillful hiring and a lot of good luck. "It's a numbers game," said Robert Lanza, a scientist with Advanced Cell Technology Inc. in Worcester, Mass., one of the few research groups that has openly experimented with cloned human embryos. "If you try it enough times, at some point it's going to work."

Where's the Gain?

But if, as most scientists suspect, the feat is a fiction, what do the Raelians gain by making the claim and then getting busted? Most science fraud is perpetrated with the hope of not getting caught, said hoax author Boese, who is working toward a doctorate in the history of science at the University of California at San Diego. But the Raelians, he suspects, pose a "special case."

"They are making their claim so public, I think for them publicity has to be the main motive. Even if it's exposed as a fraud, they've become known to millions," he said.

Based on his studies of previous publicity-driven hoaxes, Boese said, expect the first cloning test results to be ambiguous or otherwise requiring some follow-up. "The way these things usually work out," he said, "is they just keep stringing it out."

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