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Wednesday, 16 January, 2002, 11:07 GMT
Cloning paper prompts more resignations
Clone, ACT
Are they really human embryo clones?
By BBC News Online science editor Dr David Whitehouse

Two more scientists have resigned from the editorial board of the online science journal e-biomed, criticising its highly publicised and controversial publication of a paper on human cloning last November.

[We] would have counselled against publication

Dr Robin Lovell-Badge
The electronic paper, heralded by the worldwide media as a scientific landmark, claimed to describe the first ever human embryo clone.

The scientists stepping down are Robin Lovell-Badge, of Britain's National Institute for Medical Research, and Davor Solter, director of the Max Planck Institute for Immunobiology, Germany. They follow the departure of American John Gearhart, a pioneer in the field of stem cell research.

Dr Lovell-Badge told BBC News Online: "The [e-biomed cloning] paper was of little or no scientific value."

'Scientific flaws'

In e-biomed, the American biotechnology company Advanced Cell Technology (ACT) claimed to be the first to create a human embryo clone. When its paper was posted on the electronic journal's website, the publication was picked up by news organisations and the details despatched around the world.

Jose Cibelli, BBC
Jose Cibelli led the ACT research
But while the media heralded the crossing of the human cloning Rubicon, senior scientists began to declare their unease with both the quality of the research and the way it was announced.

First to leave e-biomed's editorial board was Professor John Gearhart, one of the first scientists ever to isolate and culture human embryonic stem cells in the lab. He said he was embarrassed and chagrined by the paper, which he claimed contained fundamental scientific flaws.

He stepped down after being refused, he claimed, information about the referees who peer-reviewed ACT's paper.

Not informed

The departure now of two more scientists from e-biomed will cast fresh doubt on whether ACT actually produced a human embryo clone at all.

Dr Robin Lovell-Badge is one of the leading scientists in this field, yet he said he was not informed or consulted at all prior to the publication of the controversial paper.

"I think the three of us all felt that the editor and/or publishers should have consulted at least one of the experts on their editorial board about a paper that might be contentious. Any of us would have counselled against publication."

He added: "It seems that the only reason our names were on the editorial board was to try to give the journal some status that it clearly does not deserve. I had not been consulted once since the journal was established over any paper or matter of editorial policy, etc."

'Not a success'

Critics of ACT's cloning procedure point to the short development of the most advanced embryo mentioned in the paper; it had divided to just six cells after five days. If it had developed normally it should have had 50 to 100 cells, commentators have said.

"This is clearly not a success," Dr Lovell-Badge told BBC News Online. "In fact, it was no advance on work done in Korea a couple of years ago, which was reported in newspapers, but was not published."

"Looking at the paper in e-biomed, it was not possible to see in the figures whether the six cells each had a nucleus. If they did not then it would have been a fragmented embryo and therefore no evidence of any normal development."

Quiet departure

A fragmented embryo is quite common with human eggs. Concerned scientists also point out that ACT could have stained the embryo to reveal its nuclei, but did not.

If it really were an embryo clone then each cell would have had DNA identical to the donor. But such confirmation was not available because ACT did not look.

John Gearhart's resignation from e-biomed was a very public affair. A little later Drs Lovell-Badge and Solter have left a little more quietly, believing the journal has already had enough publicity.

Mary-Ann Leibert, the publisher of e-biomed, has said that she is surprised about the fuss the paper generated.

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