A twisted tale
Human cloning claims were causing controversy again last week. Helen Pilcher warns us not to ignore the shadow cast on science publishing amid the media’s ethical frenzy.
Fertility researcher Panayiotis Zavos is no stranger to the cloning controversy. So when he blew into Britain last week for a press conference, journalists were all ears. But perhaps the media got more than was bargained for, with a contorted sequence of events that raised questions not only about morals and money but also the scientific process.
Let's set the scene: London. A crowded room packed with news-hungry hacks. Zavos, the undoubted star of show, is a colourful character who once claimed that one of his female patients was pregnant with a cloned human embryo.
His new claim is even more controversial. Zavos says he has cloned human embryos using genetic material from dead people. Although the alleged embryos were destroyed when they were just tiny bundles of cells, Zavos views the procedure as an important step towards human reproductive cloning... which implies he may be thinking about cloning dead people... which leads to fears that vulnerable, grieving families may seriously start to think of cloning as a way to 'bring back' a loved one.
Is Zavos taking advantage of the vulnerable? It is hard to say. At the same press conference, he says that relatives of some of the deceased provided money to fund his research.
As expected, Zavos's revelation kicks up a media storm. But what most of the journalists really want is a little bit of proof to back up his claim. Supportive data published in a peer-reviewed journal would do nicely, they say.
Zavos replies that his data is about to be published in a peer-reviewed journal, which he does not name. But on his website he lists a similar-sounding paper as being 'in press' with the Journal of Assisted Reproduction and Genetics (JARG).
Fast forward a few days. The JARG paper is pulled, and the journal's editor, Norbert Gleicher, tells firstname.lastname@example.org that he had ditched it because he does not tolerate unauthorized prepublication publicity, and because he is concerned by the researcher's public portrayal of the work.
A reasonable decision you might think. After all, the original paper made no mention of cells from corpses, or funding from grieving relatives.
But it is not as simple as that. Zavos insists that the work described in the JARG paper bears no relation to his recent public declarations, and that his work on the DNA of dead people will appear in a different journal, which he still declines to name.
The JARG manuscript, which has been seen in confidence by email@example.com, does indeed appear to be describing a different piece of work.
If the two studies are separate, it seems a little odd and perhaps unfair for a journal to pull a paper because one of its authors spoke publicly about a different bit of work. After all, Zavos's JARG paper has already passed the in-house peer-review process, so it clearly cuts the journal's scientific mustard.
The paper's title suggests the research could have implications for therapeutic cloning, although Zavos makes no secret of his long-term intentions. "I intend to deliver a cloned baby to the world shortly," he tells firstname.lastname@example.org (along with anyone else who will listen).
So maybe you could argue that, because of his statements to the media, publishing his work is tantamount to endorsing reproductive cloning. But should a scientist's personal conduct influence a journal's decision to publish?
Is it personal?
In 2002, physicist Jan Hendrik Schön had his doctorate withdrawn after he was found to have fabricated and falsified data in over 15 papers. Yet the integrity of his doctorate was never in doubt. Some think that the punishment fitted the crime; others, that this was a step too far.
With Zavos, the waters are equally murky, although the stakes are arguably higher. Many people are tired of his unsubstantiated claims and repetitive public appearances. Many, myself included, abhor his personal goal of creating a human clone. The technology is, for the moment at least, medically unsafe and scientifically unsound.
But if he does go ahead and fulfil his promises, doesn't the world have a right to know? If and when this happens, we will need peer-reviewed, publicly available data so that we can make our own minds up about any purported claims.
Unfortunately, the JARG paper would have been Zavos's first peer-reviewed publication detailing the methodology of his human cloning experiments. His love of the media spotlight may have just cost him his last line of defence against his critics.