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Sunday, April 29, 2001 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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Sect worships science, aims to clone baby boy

Newsday

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Cloning defects abound
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CLINTON, N.Y. - The sun is hinting at an appearance after what seemed an eternity of rain. Remaining piles of snow have been relegated to ditches along the steep road that leads to Hamilton College, and for a moment, the only reminder of a raging ethical storm here is the silver pendant dangling from Brigitte Boisselier's neck.

Boisselier, a visiting assistant professor of chemistry, smiles and apologizes for being late.

Her silver pendant mimics the Star of David, with added swirls meeting at the center to represent the eternity of time and matter. It identifies Boisselier as a Raelian, one of between 25,000 and 55,000 members of a sect whose religion is science.

But perhaps more important, it intimates her belief that humans were created through the intelligent design of extraterrestrials, and her belief that a continuation of the creative cycle and the secret of eternal life itself can be revealed by cloning a baby boy.

Oh, they will clone others, she says. But the baby boy, a 10-month-old who died during heart surgery, will be first. His parents, who wish to stay anonymous, have given $500,000 to fund the first year of the project, called Clonaid, estimated to cost more than $1 million. Boisselier is scientific director, and 55 Raelian women have volunteered as surrogate mothers to help defy the low probability of success.

"I feel that cloning is right, that science is right as long as we use it to do good," Boisselier says.

Hamilton College's faculty and 1,740 students have had little time to adjust to the media maelstrom since Boisselier's cloning interests came to light in February through two independently published magazine articles.

"There was a great deal of surprise," college spokesman Mike Debraggio says. "This (human cloning) is not only here, but we have someone on campus who is a leading proponent." Boisselier will resign next month to focus on Clonaid. But her impact will linger.

In 1997, Scottish researcher Ian Wilmut introduced Dolly the sheep - the first clone of an adult mammal. Wilmut and his team replaced the nucleus in a sheep's unfertilized egg, with a nucleus from an adult sheep's mammary gland. They coaxed the egg to begin dividing as if it had been fertilized, tricking the donor nucleus into resetting its genes to early embryonic states and allowing the resulting embryo to be implanted into the uterus of a surrogate.

Human cloning would work much the same to produce an identical genetic copy of a person, although environmental conditions would ensure that the clone would retain unique characteristics.

But even Wilmut and other cloning pioneers such as Rudolf Jaenisch have blasted the idea of performing the feat on humans.

"I think it's outrageous," says Jaenisch, reached by telephone at the Whitehead Institute for Biomedical Research in Cambridge, Mass. "It's reckless and irresponsible ... at this stage."

Boisselier says she was thrilled about Dolly, because it meant human cloning was imminent, as foretold by the French prophet Rael, the Raelians' spiritual leader and a former race-car driver.

In 1997, after receiving a master's degree in biological chemistry from the University of Dijon in France, a doctorate in physical chemistry from the same university, and a doctorate in analytical chemistry from the University of Houston, the native Frenchwoman told the Paris daily Le Monde that cloning humans was OK.

Within four weeks of the article, she says, she was fired from her job at the French chemical giant Air Liquide.

Air Liquide spokeswoman Joelle Ambon says Boisselier was asked to leave her post as a sales manager because her private activity, a leadership position within the Raelian movement, was taking too much time from her obligations to the company's customers.

Boisselier sued for religious discrimination and won on appeal. But she was losing other battles. She lost custody of her youngest daughter to her ex-husband.

Boisselier retreated to Montreal with her son to be near some of her Raelian friends.

Her eldest daughter was already a college student in Montreal, and Boisselier was able to devote more time to Clonaid.

Then her passion for teaching flared. Timothy Elgren, who helped interview Boisselier at Hamilton, said it's hard to say whether she would have been hired had her outside activities had been known. But he noted that her commitment to Clonaid as scientific director didn't begin until after she had signed with Hamilton.

Boisselier says her team of a geneticist, two biologists and a specialist of in vitro fertilization are working at an undisclosed location to perfect the cloning steps.

"I am not here telling you I'm an expert in cloning," she says. "But I know how to find the right scientists." She says she's not about to rush into anything without addressing safety concerns. "I know that if... the first clone baby has any defects, I will not be able to return to a project like that, and somebody won't be able to touch that for 20 years," she says.

Which is perhaps the real reason any carefully monitored pregnancy will be aborted at the first sign of trouble.

Boisselier says her company has had inquiries from infertile couples, parents grieving the loss of a child, gays and lesbians, and older singles who reason that raising a "belated twin" would be easier than finding a partner and conceiving in the traditional way.

Clonaid isn't alone. Former University of Kentucky reproductive specialist Dr. Panos Zavos has announced his intent to clone a human in an undisclosed Mediterranean country.

He say he's already attracted hundreds of couples.

"I wish him well," Boisselier says, "If he does succeed before I do, in a certain sense I win."

After all, few scientists were speaking openly about human cloning four years ago. Now, most of them consider it inevitable.

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