A free-love Canadian cult, whose members believe they were cloned by aliens, claims to have received pounds 350,000 from an American couple to clone their 10-month-old daughter, who died last year.
The couple, says the cult, has given skin cells from their daughter to scientists who say they can produce her clone by the end of this year. The French doctor leading the experiment on behalf of the Raelian Movement has persuaded her own daughter to carry the cloned embryo in her uterus.
The claims point to a future of uncontrolled cloning laboratories operating in America. Human cloning is not yet banned in the United States.
The Raelian Movement was founded by a French singer and former sportswriter, Claude "Rael" Vorilhon, the author of a 1974 book titled The Message Given to Me by Extraterrestrials. He believes he was kidnapped by aliens, cloned and his clone returned to Earth. He claims that his group has 50,000 members, mainly in Quebec.
In 1997 the Raelians announced that they were setting up Clonaid, a biotechnology firm that will fund cloning projects not authorised by governments on scientific and ethical grounds. They believe that over time, cloning will become as common as in-vitro fertilisation.
Earlier claims by the group that they had more than 100 mainly homosexual couples ready to pay for cloned babies and more than pounds 1 million in backing have never been verified. Now, the group refuses to name the couple who have given their dead daughter's cells, saying only that they are in their thirties and still able to have more children naturally.
Critics of the group say it is using the issue of cloning simply to raise its own profile. Clonaid's rate card offers human cloning for pounds 130,000 and a service called Insuraclone for pounds 33,000 which will sample and store human cells to create a clone if that person dies. In cases where there are genetic diseases, the cult promises it will not clone someone until their genes can be repaired.
An additional service, Clonapet, which will clone favourite pet animals, is said to be in the pipeline.
The technique Clonaid plans to use for the child is that used for Dolly the sheep, the first animal clone. It is called somatic cell nuclear transfer and involves using an electrical charge to fuse the cells of the dead child to an egg cell stripped of its genetic properties.
This then grows into an embryo which is implanted in the uterus of a surrogate mother. Clonaid claims to have more than 50 women available as surrogates for cloned embryos.
Among them is Marina Cocolios, 22, the daughter of Brigitte Boisselier, Clonaid's scientific director. Dr Boisselier, who is French, is a bishop in the Raelian Movement, with a background in chemical gas research rather than biotechnology.
"I am very sure about what I'm doing," Miss Cocolios, a fine arts student, told the New York Post. "These people want the DNA of that first baby to have the chance to fully express itself and I want to help give that chance."
The Raelians have a quasi-Christian aspect to their creed. They believe that life on Earth was created by aliens called Elohim, a Hebrew word mistranslated in the Bible as "God". They believe Jesus's resurrection was a cloning performed by the Elohim.