The First Clone
Scientists have finally cloned a human embryo. The breakthrough promises cures for terrible diseases. Here's the inside story:
Both Cibelli and West knew from the start that they would need to race to form useful therapies before controversy overshadowed their efforts. Because no new treatments can be given to humans without first being tested in animals, Cibelli and West needed someone with connections in the research world who could get those studies up and running right away. As it turned out, that person was working just a mile or so down the road.
Robert Lanza is the living embodiment of the character played by Matt Damon in the movie Good Will Hunting. Growing up underprivileged in Stoughton, Mass., south of Boston, the young preteen caught the attention of Harvard Medical School researchers when he showed up on the university steps having successfully altered the genetics of chickens in his basement. Over the next decade, he was to be "discovered" and taken under the wing of scientific giants such as psychologist B. F. Skinner, immunologist Jonas Salk, and heart transplant pioneer Christiaan Barnard. His mentors described him as a "genius," a "renegade" thinker, even likening him to Einstein.
With a gift for enticing the world's top minds, Lanza managed as a medical student to extract essays from the likes of C. Everett Koop, Boutros Boutros-Ghali, and Linus Pauling, which he compiled into a book sounding warning bells about the declining chances for health and survival of the species over the coming century.
Lanza focused his laserlike intellect on transplant medicine and tissue engineering. For 20 years, he worked to cure diseases such as diabetes and leukemia through infusions of new cells and organs from donors. "But for 20 years, I hit my head against the same thing over and over again--rejection, rejection, rejection," says Lanza. Using strong drugs to prevent patients' immune systems from attacking the foreign cells, Lanza says, the cure was often worse than the disease. "Even with the drugs, I watched too many children have first their fingers amputated, then their hands, then their arms." When Lanza discovered that it might be possible to clone a patient's own cells, he felt that he finally had the solution he'd spent decades searching for, and in March 1999 he signed on as Advanced Cell Technology's director of medical research.
With characteristic chutzpah, his first act upon joining the company was to persuade 67 Nobel laureates to sign a letter to then President Clinton in support of human embryonic stem cell research. Like his newfound colleagues West and Cibelli, Lanza knew that human therapeutic cloning would have to prove its ability to revolutionize medical care as fast as possible, before political and ethical controversies swamped the whole enterprise.
In the spring of 1999, ACT's new troika sat down to discuss just how to venture into what's arguably the most controversial area in medicine today. "We knew that we would have to fend off attacks," recalls Lanza. "But we never imagined all the insanity that would come." Over the course of the next two years, the men would be called "mad scientists," "baby killers," and "monsters"; their names would be added to antiabortion "assassination" lists on the Web; the FBI would warn them of threats on their lives, and conservatives would push a bill through the House of Representatives declaring them federal criminals deserving of 10 years in prison and a $1 million fine.