The crusading cloner from Cyprus

LEXINGTON, Kentucky – With a huge collection of diplomas and 23 years of experience in the field of reproductive medicine, scientist Panayiotis Zavos now seeks the dubious honor of cloning the first human and ushering in the age of asexual human reproduction. The 57-year-old Greek Cypriot, a naturalized US citizen, believes the birth of the first human clone is around the corner – by the end of this year or early next year. As we speak, we are running now very close. We will be attempting pretty soon the first nuclear transfers, Zavos told AFP in the studied carelessness of his modest office at the Andrology Institute in Lexington, Kentucky. Panos, as he is known to his friends, is a crusader in a white lab coat, with a tuft of gray hair covering his forehead. Along with a dozen doctors and biogeneticists, including the famous Italian gynecologist Severino Antinori, he has taken up the challenge of pushing back life’s frontiers for the betterness of society. Talkative, inquisitive and with an oversized ego, Zavos loves to talk about himself. The walls of his office are covered with diplomas in biology, chemistry and reproductive physiology, as well as other honors that betray a hunger for recognition. I am a pioneer and a perfectionist, he says, pointing out a list of articles he wrote for scientific magazines from around the world. This technology is going to be developed, is going to be made safe by a responsible group of people. We have a very good track record. Either Severino (Antinori) or myself, or anyone in our team, we are serious scientists. We’ve been doing this for a long time, he explains. Many in the scientific community have warned against human experiments with a technique that is only 95 to 97 percent accurate in animals and say the process will undoubtedly lead to deformed or mentally handicapped human babies. There are a lot of incompetent scientists out there, Zavos notes. They claim that because they cannot do it, I should not be doing it. They’re wrong. I happen to know some things that you don’t know, and vice versa. I’ve been doing human IVF (in vitro fertilization) and human reproduction for the last 23 years. Do I know something about it? Yes, hell, I do. We will not allow a baby to be born abnormal, he says emphatically. What happens if there is an accident? We would stop and ask if what we are doing is wrong. Do we want to produce dead babies? Of course not, he replies. For Zavos, the science of cloning is taboo because it is innovative, just as in vitro fertilization, perfected by Bob Edwards in 1978, was at the outset. Society will grow to accept human cloning according to need, Zavos says. The market is enormous. More than 3,000 people have contacted us, and we haven’t advertised yet. But as opposed to in vitro fertilization, the act of cloning a human being is akin to opening a Pandora’s box of medical and ethical questions, as it no longer requires male-female sexual reproduction and the child will only possess the characteristics of one of its two parents. Still, talk of a scientific revolution does not inspire Zavos. What is the philosophical difference between having one person giving its DNA or two persons giving their DNA? he asks, advocating a relative morality in the name of scientific progress. If you are morally against something, you don’t have an objective scientific opinion on the subject. You cannot be a lover and a prostitute at the same time. You have to choose, he says. But Zavos does not believe in the uncontrolled use of the technology, saying the state governments should be allowed to regulate the procedure to avoid certain abuses. This technology should assist people that cannot have children to have children. It should not be used to clone the rich and famous, to resurrect people or to design genetically modified babies, he notes.