By Dr. Joshua Ellis
When the Raelian organization announced a few days ago that it had created the first human clone - a baby girl named Eve - I was a little skeptical, to put it mildly. After all, the Raelians believe that all life on Earth is the result of genetic engineering by aliens they call the Elohim - a form of "scientific creationism," as their website puts it. I've met a few Raelians here in Las Vegas, and they all seem to be very happy people, which immediately makes me suspicious. But then again, I'm a bitter, vicious motherfucker, so caveat emptor.
But I'm a demented futurist, so I didn't immediately rule out the possibility. Instead, I called up Nadine Gary, who does PR for Clonaid (Clonaid is the private corporation, founded by Rael, which actually did the cloning). She got me an interview with Thomas Kaenzig, Clonaid's VP of operations, and we met at a small park in the chilly December air to discuss the matter. Kaenzig is an earnest, young Swiss guy who was happy to answer my questions, even though he was understandably exhausted - when we spoke, he hadn't slept for at least 48 hours, fielding questions from the media and government agencies.
The process of cloning a human, says Kaenzig, is fairly simple. You take a cell sample from a donor. Then you extract an ovum from a woman's womb. You enucleate the ovum - meaning you remove its nucleus, which contains all the genetic information. You take the donor cell and insert it in the enucleated egg. You fuse the two cells, using a fusion machine - which Clonaid sells on its website for a modest $6,150. The cell division process starts. After five to eight days, you have a blastocyst, which is a culture of 100 to 150 cells. From there, you have two options: You can either implant the blastocyst into a woman's womb, to do reproductive cloning, or you can use it to harvest stem cells, for therapeutic cloning, which could allow scientists to clone specific organs to replace diseased organs in patients, for example. In this case, Clonaid fertilized a woman with an identical twin of herself, which she brought to term.
Pretty heavy stuff. But this is all pretty straightforward biology. "Even high school students can do it," Kaenzig points out. "It doesn't take 10 Ph.D.s." This technique has been used for in vitro fertilization for 20 years - and it's the same technique used to clone other mammals, like the celebrated sheep Dolly.
Nothing groundbreaking here - except that Clonaid claims to have actually done it. Human cloning, even therapeutic stem cell research, has been made illegal in America. Kaenzig stresses that the work was done outside of the United States, though he won't say where. He also refuses to give any information about Eve's mother, except that she's in her 30s. This, he says, is for security reasons. "We don't disclose any information about our labs, or in regards to our patients. We know it's a very controversial issue." He says that Clonaid is afraid of attacks from "fanatical religious zealots" that trouble abortion clinics.
Clonaid's secrecy has led some observers to write the whole thing off as a hoax. This has not fazed the company. It is working with freelance journalist and former ABC Science Editor Michael Guillen to provide independent verification from an outside expert, as yet unnamed, who will draw DNA samples from both the baby and the mother and compare them (which may have already happened by the time this goes to print). When we spoke, Kaenzig seemed completely convinced that their work would bear up to scrutiny.
Nor is Clonaid terribly concerned by the cries of horror from religious groups and cries of ethical failure from scientists. "If you don't want the technology, nobody's going to force you to use it," Kaenzig says. "But please, let the people who have very big hopes for this technology use it. That's all we ask."
So where is Clonaid going from here? Eventually, Kaenzig says, it would like to be able to take genetic material from two donors and combine them, rather than simply creating a carbon copy of an individual. This would allow gay or lesbian couples, for example, to have a child who is literally a product of both parents. Clonaid would also like to create a fully developed human clone, rather than a baby ... but that's a long way off.
At no time during our conversation did Kaenzig trigger my bullshit detector, and I see no reason to think that Clonaid could not have cloned little Eve. The fact that they are Raelians, to me, has no bearing on the matter. The science seems valid, and all we can do now is wait for verification. But I'd put even money on Clonaid being proven right ... and I'm not a gambling man.
If it is true, all that remains is to see how the world reacts. And as for that question, as far as I'm concerned, all bets are off.
Joshua Ellis, raconteur and deranged futurist, has a doctorate in divinity from the Universal Life Church. He can be contacted at email@example.com or on the web at groups.yahoo.com/group/paranoid_annex, the discussion group for this column.