One of the showmen of the fertility business yesterday claimed to have breached another reproductive frontier by transferring the first cloned human embryo into a 35-year-old woman.
Panos Zavos, a fertility specialist at the University of Kentucky, gave no details of the patient, or where she was treated, other than to say it was not in the US, the UK or "the continent of Europe".
There was no independent verification of his claim and he said that there was only a 30 per cent chance that the embryo, grown using skin cells from the woman's husband, would implant in her womb. A pregnancy test would be carried out within the next week, he said.
Dr Zavos's claim came at the end of a packed press conference called to discuss another cloning topic and was received with a mixture of astonishment, scepticism and outrage by journalists and experts.
At one point Dr Zavos displayed a mocked-up picture of himself in a space-suit standing on the surface of the moon - a scientist reaching out to embrace new worlds. "If George W Bush wants to put a station on the moon to explore Mars, what is wrong with us searching for our reproductive future in the stars," he said, to laughter.
Although he is not the first to claim to have cloned a human embryo - the Raelian cult said a year ago that it had cloned several babies whose whereabouts and identities have never been revealed - his assertions have to be taken seriously because he has the technical expertise to achieve his ends.
He claimed to have created the first cloned human embryo earlier last year but plans to transfer it into a woman had to be postponed in July when the woman developed "complications." That clone remains frozen, he said, and a freshly cloned embryo was used in the new attempt.
His appearance in London was widely condemned yesterday as publicity-seeking and raising false hope in infertile couples.
The Secretary of State for Health, John Reid, described it as a "gross misuse of genetic science". Lord May, the president of the Royal Society, said: "Attempts to use untested technologies which exploit vulnerable people who desperately want children should be condemned." Wolf Reik, a cloning expert at the Babraham Institute, Cambridge, said even if the woman became pregnant the odds were stacked against the baby.
The process of creating the cloned embryo was similar to that used to clone Dolly the sheep but with "some modifications", Dr Zavos said. Even that claim was met with scepticism. Dr Zavos saved his shock announcement until the end of the press conference at which he declared he was launching an embryo-splitting programme - to offer couples the chance of taking half of the embryo and implanting it into the mother's womb while the other half is frozen and stored.
Embryo-splitting has not yet been successfully carried out in primates, the animals most closely related to humans.Reuse content