Put to the Test - Genetic Tests Could Resolve Cloned Baby Claim, But Are Not Foolproof

(ABCNEWS.com - January 2, 2003)Cloning may be a complex process fraught with potential errors, but scientists say genetic testing to confirm a possible cloning is not — as long as it's done honestly

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"Let me pluck a single hair from mother and baby and I could tell you in my lab the next day," wrote Richard Boles, head of medical genetics at the Children's Hospital in Los Angeles, in an e-mail to ABCNEWS.com. "Hundreds of labs can do this too, and one can use blood, saliva, urine or whatever."

Brigitte Boisselier, chief executive of Clonaid, the group that claims to have produced the world's first human clone, promised Tuesday that an independent expert is sampling both mother and child and should offer proof that the 7-pound baby girl named Eve is indeed a clone within a week.

Scientists, citing lack of proof and the many failed and problem-plagued attempts at cloning other animals, are widely skeptical — and fearful of the claim.

"They haven't told us who the scientists are who supposedly performed this cloning," said Michael Watson, executive director of the American College of Medical Genetics in Bethesda, Md. "And I can't imagine that they could have done this without significant failures."

Comparing Strands

The only way to prove the claim, says Watson, would be through genetic analysis.

In traditional genetic identification tests, cell nuclei are extracted from any part of a person's body such as a hair or blood sample. Once treated, these nuclei can yield the long, twisted strand of DNA that holds the unique molecular structure of every individual. Stretched to its full length, this strand measures nearly 6 feet long but only one-tenth of 1 percent of a person's DNA is unique.

To identify the unique parts, scientists use a series of chemical markers that bind to the DNA sample in distinctive patterns. If a child is a clone of her parent, then all these distinctive patterns should match.

"The test, itself, can vary," said Watson. "The more markers you look at and the more informative the markers are, the higher likelihood that you have an accurate test."

Room for Error

Although the test is considered accurate and reliable, there is room for error (or deception).

"It would be real easy just to give two samples from the mother, or to switch samples at some point," cautions Boles. "I would be skeptical of any claims that do not include a credible, independent, eyewitness account of sample collection and transport."

Another area that could be vulnerable to error is a part of the genetic testing process when a chemical reaction is used to amplify tiny amounts of DNA to prepare for analysis. Samples can become cross-contaminated during this process and lead to a mix up in the genetic readings.

Apart from the cell nucleus, DNA can also be retrieved from a cell's mitochondria — the so-called powerhouses of cells. But testing of this DNA could lead to misguided conclusions since a child's mitochondrial DNA is largely inherited from the mother. So whether or not the child is a clone of her mother, her mitochondrial DNA could appear identical.

To avoid such possible problems and fraudulent testing, Boles says several labs would need to independently confirm a match.

Cloning Déjà Vu

On Friday, Boisselier told reporters that a former ABCNEWS science editor, Michael Guillen, would be appointed to select an "expert" who would then conduct the genetic tests on the mother and child. But neither Guillen nor Boisselier have revealed any details about the identities of the "expert" or the processes that would be used.

Clonaid was founded by the creator of the Raelian Movement, a group that claims life on Earth was spawned by aliens who arrived 25,000 years ago and who created humans by cloning.

This is not the first time that testing has sought to confirm a claim of human cloning.

In 1978 journalist David Rorvik claimed in his book, In His Image: The Cloning of a Man, that scientists had cloned a bachelor millionaire on an undisclosed island. It took three months to disprove the account.

This time, thanks to the advanced technology of genetic identification, scientific confirmation or dismissal could come more swiftly.

Last Updated: Jan 2, 2003