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At cloning panel, much outcry, little science

In the middle of the grand foyer of the National Academy of Sciences building, a flock of reporters and cameras stood in a tight circle listening to Panayiotis Zavos explain the ins and outs of cloning.

He had come to defend the controversial plan he and a partner recently announced - to begin cloning a human being by the end of the year. He had been talking for 10 minutes, when a man burst into the room.

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"You are a disgrace. This is a disgrace. This is a violation of human rights," he yelled.

Dr. Zavos, one of an international team defending the use of cloning as a way to help some 200 infertile couples have children, put his head down and walked out of the room. The representatives of the media, pens and pads already drawn, turned to talk to the man.

And that, in essence, is the state of the cloning debate in Washington.

Science in general is not often a topic well-handled by the policy mavens and lobbyists of this town. But cloning in particular, a complicated topic even in the realm of science, can be particularly poorly suited for a city where most issues are generally reduced to the "Crossfire" dialectic (You're wrong. No, you're wrong). And that has some here concerned.

"There is no scientific evidence to suggest this can even be done," says Sean Tipton of the American Society of Reproductive Medicine. "What this is is irresponsible headline-grabbing that can easily lead to irresponsible policymaking."

Dr. Tipton and his group aren't opposed to human cloning per se, they just don't feel the science is ready for it yet, and they think Zavos and the other "cloning now" researchers are poisoning the debate. They're hurting the very cause they claim is their goal by giving critics ammunition and feeding science-fiction fears.

It felt like a B-movie

There was a definite B-movie feel to this week's hearing at the National Academy of Sciences (NAS). The three presenters sat at a table before some of the most distinguished people in the area of cloning, saying they wanted to push the boundaries of science. They said they had secret locations where they would conduct their experiments regardless. Two spoke of the 200 couples they've lined up to be cloned.

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The setting for the meeting, the NAS building auditorium, only added to the weirdness of it all. Its white-arched ceiling and walls with large protruding geometric shapes and rows of red seats make it look like something out of a 1970s sci-fi film.

And Zavos, who is partnering with Italian scientist Severino Antinori on the cloning project, and Brigitte Boisselier, scientific director for a company called Clonaid who is pursuing her own research, did little to dissuade those who were concerned about their plans.

At several points, the question-and-answer portion of the meeting nearly descended into a shouting match. And questions were raised about the information Zavos and his colleagues were conveying.

Dr. Boisselier spoke of 42 chromosomes in each human cell when the actual number is a 46 - 23 pair. At another point, Zavos spoke of the great success of a Japanese calf cloning experiment that yielded clones in eight out of 10 tries. Only later did a questioner point out that four of the eight calves died shortly after birth.

"We're merely reporting on the facts as they appear in the literature," Zavos said.

In the end this is what much of the meeting focused on. Would human cloning be any different than animal cloning, where success numbers are still relatively low, and has animal cloning advanced far enough to risk human cloning? Zavos and his two colleagues on the panel said yes. The other assembled scientists argued no. And that is where the two sides stayed.

At the moment the three scientists have few allies. And even if Zavos and Mr. Antinori repair to their lab and work in secret, they're likely to win few champions beyond the 200 couples they've reportedly signed up. Zavos is criticized by many in his trade. "He's definitely in the field, but I wouldn't call him an intellectual leader," one fertility expert says. The 400-plus papers he's published are more about "quantity than quality."

Dr. Boisselier hasn't helped reduce the science-fiction haze around the issue by being a member of the Raelian movement, which believes aliens are responsible for all life on earth and cloning is the ultimate goal of humans.

Science vs. science fiction

For many, the cloning debate is probably best "known" from movie screenplays where people emerge from vats of goo or pods as fully formed human beings. In reality, clones already exist in some sense in the form of identical twins. In the end, that is one of cloning's mission, to produce identical twins that would be some years removed from each other.

Pamela Madsen, head of the American Infertility Association, says her group believes cloning may be useful to help infertile couples sometime in the future. "We don't want to outlaw all cloning, but we are opposed to it being used for human reproduction. Who knows, maybe 30 years from now this will all sound silly. Thirty years ago, remember all the fuss over Louise Brown?" she says of the world's first in vitro or "test tube" baby.

In the end, she says, the issue is best served by an honest and civilized debate over cloning - a goal that seems more distant following this week's NAS meeting.

At one point a NAS panelist asked Zavos if there was anything he might come across while cloning that would cause him to stop. If there was any point at which he'd draw the line. "If we cannot do it right, we will not do it," Zavos said. "Tell me you are satisfied with that."

"I'm not," the panelist shot back.

"Well," Zavos said angrily, "that's all you're going to get."