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Thursday, 9 August, 2001, 09:34 GMT 10:34 UK
Cloning doctor sparks furore
Dr Antinori and his associate Dr Panos Zavos
Dr Antinori (left) and his associate Dr Panos Zavos
By David Willey in Rome

Doctor Severino Antinori, an Italian gynaecologist who runs a fertility clinic in Rome, has suddenly leaped into the world's headlines by announcing his plans to clone the first human beings.

He wants to launch a series of experiments in some unspecified country in November.

"The Italian Frankenstein," shouts a headline in the Berlin daily Der Morgenpost.

"Don't play the clone," quips the Paris daily Liberation.

"Alarm and condemnation," thunders the Vatican's Osservatore Romano.

Dr Antinori is accused by many scientists of lacking the necessary qualifications and medical research background to carry out such ground breaking experiments.

He graduated in medicine at Rome University in 1972 and at present holds a research post there, in addition to running his private fertility clinic.

He has had various minor articles on human embryology published in medical journals during the past 10 years.

'Under attack'

Tempers are running high. The Italian Health Minister, Girolamo Sirchia, has threatened to get the Roman doctor struck off the Italian medical register for unethical practices.

Dr Severino Antinori
Dr Antinori says he is only helping childless couples
Dr Antinori replied by hiring himself a lawyer to sue the minister for defamation.

In Washington this week, Dr Antinori came under attack from his peers at a meeting organised by a special joint panel of the US National Academies.

He says his technique - which he claims to have experimented on mice and goats - does not lead to carbon copy reproduction.

His babies will have a small percentage of the DNA of their mothers and thus will not be perfect clones, he argues.

'Grave risks'

Dr Antinori is acting solely to enable couples who would otherwise be infertile to have children, he claims. He also says the risks of producing malformed babies are minimal.

Health Minister Sirchia remains adamant that "there are grave ethical and biological risks". He accuses Dr Antinori of creating hopes among aspiring parents that do not correspond to reality.

"Reproductive cloning is banned in most countries in the world," the minister said.

Dr Antinori has been pursued by reporters and photographers in Washington.

He continues to claim a theoretical success rate of at least 12% for human embryo clones in comparison with the 1% reported by Ian Wilmut, the scientist who created Dolly the sheep clone.

'Helping the infertile'

Dr Antinori categorically denied that he would ever try to use his cloning technique for single women, for couples who wanted to clone a dead child, or for childless couples who desire to have children late in life when normal reproduction is impossible.

Dr Antinori first attracted media attention in 1994, when he enabled a 62-year-old woman, well past her menopause, to conceive and give birth to a healthy child.

Asked point-blank by one reporter this week whether he had in fact already cloned a human being, Dr Antinori refused to answer the question.

See also:

08 Aug 01 | Americas
US press condemns cloning plans
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