The God game no more

The feds crack down on a human cloning lab

U.S. News and World Report/July 9, 2001
By Nell Boyce and David E. Kaplan

For Brigitte Boisselier, cloning a human being isn't just good science -it's a religious imperative. As a trained chemist and a bishop of a sect that believes scientists from another planet created all life on Earth, Boisselier and other followers of the "Raelian" religion say cloning is key to humanity's future.

Despite warnings from scientists who say such practices are fraught with potential health risks, some Raelians have built a secret U.S. laboratory and vowed to create the first human clone this year. They also believe the feds have no legal right to stop them. Washington, unsurprisingly, disagrees. U.S. News has learned that a federal grand jury in Syracuse, N.Y., near Boisselier's home, has subpoenaed telephone records and other documents in what appears to be an unprecedented probe into the sect's activities. Food and Drug Administration agents visited the lab recently and ordered any human cloning experiments to cease. Says one official: "There's a timeout in force."

The crackdown marks the first time that investigators have uncovered a secret lab tied to human cloning in the United States, government sources say. Among areas under investigation are possible violations of FDA regulations that govern experimental medical procedures. Officials believe the lab was set up by Clonaid, a company billed, in 1997, as the world's first human-cloning company. The firm was founded by Claude Vorilhon, a colorful French race-car driver and former journalist now known to his followers as the prophet Rael. "I haven't done anything that is illegal, and I will never do," says Boisselier, who heads the group's cloning effort.

No charges have been filed, and no lab materials have been seized, Boisselier says. She adds that she will always respect the laws of this country but says she plans to continue her cloning work-even if it means going overseas. "I want to concentrate on the science," she says. "My decision is almost made. We will move out." In the meantime, Clonaid's scientists will continue to do cloning research in their lab, Boisselier says. Officials declined to reveal the extent of the group's progress.

The federal investigation was prompted by statements Boisselier made this spring, when she said Clonaid was just weeks away from being ready to clone a human being. On March 27, Boisselier received a letter from the FDA, warning that the company might be in violation of FDA regulations. A similar letter was hand-delivered to the office of Panayiotis Zavos, a fertility expert from Lexington, Ky., who also says he plans to clone a human.

But it was the Raelians who really got the FDA's attention. For months, Boisselier has told reporters that she has three scientists and a physician trying to resurrect an 11-month-old infant-the deceased son of a former state legislator, whom the Raelians refuse to identify-through genetic regeneration. Rael, who says he was contacted by a UFO in 1973, has tens of thousands of followers, largely in France, Canada, and East Asia.

Cloning plays an important role in the religion's belief that someday human scientists will engineer their own life-forms and continue an endless circle of scientific creation. Dozens of young Raelian women, including Boisselier's daughter, have volunteered to donate eggs and act as surrogate mothers for a cloned embryo.

In March, Boisselier and Rael testified before a congressional committee about their human-cloning work. But they have refused to offer any proof that they're actually doing what they claim. "Wait and see," Boisselier has said. Not content to wait for the Raelians to one day produce a bouncing baby clone, Rep. James Greenwood, a Pennsylvania Republican, wrote to the FDA on May 29 to ask what the agency knew about Clonaid. The FDA provided few details, but officials confirmed that they had located the secret lab and halted work on human cloning, says Peter Sheffield, a spokesperson for the House Energy and Commerce Committee.

"The group appears to be well funded, and they're certainly hellbent on succeeding in efforts to clone a human being," Sheffield says. "This combination is frightening and too important to ignore, regardless of how bizarre the Raelian movement may be." FDA officials have no comment, saying only that their investigation is continuing.

Clearly, the agency is trying to flex its regulatory muscle and show Congress that it hasn't been asleep at the switch. FDA investigators have been knocking on the doors of people like Richard Seed, a Chicago physicist who made headlines three years ago when he announced his intention to clone a human. "I think their purpose was to frighten me, and they did," says Seed. But the FDA has never policed other reproductive technologies, like in vitro fertilization, and its authority over human cloning has been widely disputed.

"The authority that they're asserting is something that they've never asserted in the fertility field before," Alex Capron, professor of law and medicine at the University of Southern California told Congress last month. Capron points out that the FDA is charged with regulating safety concerns only. Cows and other animals pregnant with cloned embryos frequently miscarry, and those clones that reach birth can suffer respiratory and circulation problems that sometimes kill them.

If scientists could prove human cloning safe, however, the FDA would not have the legal authority to stop the process, despite ethicists' concerns that human cloning presents vexing moral questions. Lawmakers overwhelmingly support a ban on human cloning. Two bills have come before Congress. One would simply prohibit the creation of a cloned embryo with the intent of making a baby. The other would flatly ban the creation of a cloned human embryo. The Bush administration recently endorsed this second, more restrictive bill. But many scientists say it would impede their work on so-called therapeutic cloning, which could someday allow them to engineer perfectly matched kidneys and other replacement body parts.

Even if a law were passed in the United States, it could prove difficult to enforce because cloning operations are easy to hide. Zavos, for example, says he knows of at least two other groups quietly trying to clone a human. Would-be cloners need only basic lab equipment. "It's not like it's a magical, secret thing," says Mark Westhusin of Texas A&M University, who works on cloning animals. A ban may also simply encourage scientists to pursue their work abroad, as Boisselier plans to. Zavos says his team has already set up two clandestine labs overseas.

"We're making a lot of progress," Zavos says, although for now his staff is just practicing the cloning process with cells from other species. He says that his group has 70 couples signed up. All, he adds, are keen to have a baby through cloning.

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