O Gabinete do Dr. Antinori - The Clone Arranger
[ Tim Adams ]
I've been waiting for Professor Severino Antinori, the man who believes he will clone the first human being, for an hour or so when eventually he bursts in to the lobby of his Rome clinic, but his entrance justifies the suspense. He's grinning, looking furtive, gripping my arm. 'You know what?' he says, by way of greeting. 'You know what my life is like? I tell you! I have three bodyguards. Not one! Three !' He counts them off on his short fingers. 'And a car with dark screens. It's like a president! Three bodyguards!'
He comes closer. He has on a purple suit and a purple shirt and a white coat; his eyes are never quite still: think David Jason playing a Cinecittà version of Willy Wonka. 'Let me tell you something. That George Bush is same as bin Laden! He is a fundamentalist! The Taliban say, "Allah- akhbar"; Bush says, "God Bless America!" And your Mr Blair. Pah! ' He looks around, bristling, as if we might be eavesdropped. 'This Blair he says he wants to take off the burka. But his attitude to science is medieval, too. They want to stop me! Stop science! The French would have me in prison for 20 years!' He scans the room, perhaps for the French, rushes out, closes the door.
Then he charges back in again with a piece of paper from his assistant, a formidable woman whom he refers to - calls for, yells at every 30 seconds or so - as 'Mongardi!' The paper lists his achievements in the field of reproductive medicine. He gives it to me. Then he grabs it back and reels off its highlights: his invention of ICSI (intracystoplasmic sperm injection), the process by which a single sperm is injected directly into an egg's nucleus, the single major breakthrough in the treatment of male infertility; and his extension of IVF treatment to menopausal women (which resulted in the controversial motherhood of a 63-year-old Italian).
'They say I cannot do it! Now there are thousands of babies born in this way!' In passing, he introduces me to his daughter, a biologist, who works in the clinic. He pulls us both close and starts to relate a conversation he's recently had with Colin Powell. 'We talk, me and Mr Powell! He's a man who might listen, but instead we have this Taliban. Your Mr Blair! Without them, we could be cloning [he corrects himself] no, no, not "cloning" - "cloning" is in movies - we could be "genetically reprogramming " - this week! We could be making babies !'
Professor Antinori comes with a government health warning. As a result of his claims to be ready to start his experiments with human cloning in this country - he says he has the necessary 200 women, some of them British, signed up for trials - and after a High Court judgment that such work was technically legal, emergency legislation was debated in the House of Lords last week to prevent the possibility of the first human clone having a British passport. The on-the-hoof Bill will be rushed through the Commons in the coming days.
Before I'd set off to interview Antinori, I had left a message for Lord Winston, director of the infertility clinic at Hammersmith hospital, who has seemed a voice of reason on these issues. He phoned me back at the airport with an instruction:
' Don't get on the plane! '
'Antinori is a bombast, he's a maverick, he's an empty vessel. He does not have the credentials to be able to do what he claims he will do,' says Winston, briskly.
'Right,' I say.
'I don't believe he has enough cell-nuclear replacement experience. But he has forced us to bring in emergency legislation. He's wasted everyone's time.'
'His certainty that pre-implantation screening will remove the chance of defects in human clones is complete nonsense, and I should know because I helped invent the process. He is nowhere near being in the position he says he is of being able successfully to produce a healthy human clone. It is extraordinarily dangerous, fantastically risky.'
I promise to put this to Antinori.
'You should not even be going, not giving him the oxygen of publicity,' Winston says, and rings off.
'But...' I begin.
'And don't tell me Winston,' says Antinori, as he rushes by. ' Pah! Who is this great Lord Winston? He is a politician. How is it that the real experts are never asked about this in Britain? Steptoe and Edwards, the men who made IVF work? They faced the same persecution then that I face now! How come they never get asked?'
Mongardi goes back to her search for articles that support Antinori's claims. She unearths an interview with Robert Edwards, in which he talks about the 'strong parallels' between the initial response to IVF and the current outcry at Antinori's cloning ambitions. 'There is,' says Mongardi resignedly, 'a great deal of rivalry in the world of reproductive medicine. A great deal.'
As I read over Mongardi's shoulder, the door opens and closes and hopeful infertile couples drift in and out for appointments. In the waiting- room, others sit and pray for the extraordinary 10-a-penny miracles of fertility treatment. Mongardi's phone buzzes continually with more clients, and she occasionally answers it to say the professor is busy.
In fact, it's difficult to imagine anyone busier. Now Antinori is checking some lab reports. Now he is urging Mongardi to increase her efforts to support the legitimacy of his cloning claims. Now he is introducing me to a woman in her late forties. 'A paediatrician!' he says. 'And she could not have children of her own. Her tubes!' He makes a strangled gesture. 'And if your Lord Winston would have his way, she would never have children! But this woman, she has a child! Look at her! A paediatrician!' We both look at the woman and the woman looks at us. He holds her arm. 'Lord Winston, pah! ' he says.
And then, finally, two hours after I've arrived, he ushers me into his office and we sit down. 'Now,' he says, 'we will talk about my work. Very serious. You want to produce a good article.'
He looks around the room. 'Media is very important,' he says. 'We need to talk about these big, important issues.' And then he looks back at me. ' You know something? ' he asks, conspiratorial. 'I am a footballer, yes, still at my age! A good footballer!' He puffs out his chest. 'But I tell you, that Gascoigne, when he was here at Lazio! An individual, a genius, put him on the pitch! But off it, like a child! He lived in my apartment block, you know...'
I have a growing sense it might be a long afternoon.
Severino Antinori is 56. His career as a scientist began when he worked in veterinary biology in his uncle's rural practice. His life was changed one day in the early Seventies by the visit of Patrick Steptoe to a conference on human fertility in Rome. Antinori attended Steptoe's lecture on the then distant possibilities of fertilisation outside the womb, and immediately saw his own future, how he must retrain as an embryologist. 'People said Steptoe was crazy, that it would never work,' he says. 'But I knew straight away it would work. Knew that he would not create a monster! I could see he was a pioneer. Like the Wright Brothers! Like Galileo! Like, like...'
'I would not put myself in that company,' he says, smiling. 'And now we have a million test tube babies. Who is calling Steptoe and Edwards Frankenstein now? Those men deserve the Nobel Prize 10 times over, a million times over! A million new lives! But of course they will never get the prize. A mafia decides these things...'
The mafia, of course, is, in the professor's mind, the Swedish branch of the same ethical Cosa Nostra that includes Tony Blair, George Bush, and, most importantly for Antinori, the Pope (his clinic is within a hundred yards of the Vatican walls). It is the same mafia, too, he believes, that threatens him physically and professionally. 'Every day in Italy the College of Physicians talks of taking away my licence. Every day! The whispers come from the church to put a little more pressure on it to do that! And for what? Because I am working for a basic human right. The right we all feel to pass on our genes to a new generation!'
As he talks, Antinori's passion for his subject swells, and his ideas and arguments and prejudices tumble over each other. His enthusiasm is counterpointed by the deadpan delivery of Mongardi, who has been press-ganged into a role as translator. They argue about tenses, they quibble about dates, they shout about terminology. Mostly, Mongardi gives a good impression of someone who has heard it all before. 'Professor Antinori says he is a simple man searching for the truth,' she translates at one point, looking heavenwards, as her boss lapses into Italian. Later, he is telling me how restrained and painstaking his clinical work is. 'He's not at all cautious,' says Mongardi, mistranslating with a face of total innocence.
It is hard, however, not to be caught up in the charge of Antinori's logic. The force of his argument for cloning is that the process is simply the next magical step in the defeat of infertility. He explains this history, and his role in it, with scribbled diagrams.
'Male infertility grows, especially in Britain. My invention of ICSI [he draws a sketchy cell dotting it frantically with Biro mitochondria] has helped. I have helped men whose sperm are misformed or too slow.' He draws a sluggish tadpole. 'I have helped men whose sperm does not come out from their testes! And the next step is to help men who - traumatico! - have lost their ability to produce any sperm at all. Through war or accident or cancer. I will help only stable, loving couples. Some doctors say all this is a step too far, but those same doctors have said that about all the other steps too. Very few doctors are pioneers! Very few have both the knowledge and the, the, the...'
'Balls?' I murmur.
'Courage,' says Mongardi.
'Courage,' he says. 'There are 120 million men in this position. Should we tell them there is no hope, when we know there is?'
Leaving aside Antinori's technical competence to perform this procedure (which Lord Winston is far better able to judge than me) why, I wonder, does he seem in such a rush to get to this next stage, before the implications have been properly debated?
'Because you cannot stop these realities. I know there are scientists in Russia who will do it if we do not, and do it in secret. Mr Putin has no religion, this is his advantage. I have been invited to work there...'
'I could... I could do it in many countries. But no. I want to do this in England. I love England! It is where the great advances have come from. Fleming and Steptoe! It is the natural place!'
Say legislation was defeated, how soon could he start his experiment?
'I have two colleagues in Britain, ready to help me this afternoon.'
He laughs. 'I have my team around the world. And when I pick my team I pick only the Beckhams and Owens.'
Are they in London? I ask.
'Aha!' he says. 'How can I say? We could do it tomorrow! The women are ready and the eggs are there...'
And if his tests began, how long before he produced a successful clone?
'People look for problems. But in reality we are very close. This process, I believe, is far easier than ICSI was. When you have replaced the nucleus of the egg with the new cells, then a little electric charge and, boom, you have it.'
On the way to Antinori's clinic, I had followed the herds into the Sistine Chapel, and looked up to contemplate with them the little gap between God's finger and Adam's limp hand on Michelangelo's ceiling. As he describes this process, I have an image of Antinori jumping into that thin blue air.
Does he never fear the consequences of this act of creation?
He argues that, by prenatal screening, he can reduce the chance of abnormal foetuses to under five per cent.
And five per cent is worth risking?
'For the great benefits, yes!' he says. 'Yes, I believe it is!'
And what about the psychological implications for a child born a biological twin of its father?
'People fear that we lose individuality,' Antinori says. 'But people are shaped by a million different things! By the environment, by their times. I know two "clones", identical twins. One is a doctor, one is whatever. You cannot tell them apart! But they could not be more different! What is to fear?'
Won't the technology inevitably fall into the wrong hands?
'People said the same about the atomic bomb,' he says.
'But it has not happened!' he says.
Won't people see it as a short cut to immortality? To recreate themselves?
'Imagine,' he says, looking at me, grinning, 'we create a thousand Tims! Who would want that? Terrible! A thousand Tims! No way! But that is what regulation is for, not to stop science, to make sure it is used positively.'
The notion of a thousand Tims gives me slight pause. (I'm reminded of Richard Dawkins's idea: 'But do you whisper to yourself a secret confession? Wouldn't you love to be cloned?' I decide probably not.) Anyway, shouldn't regulation be in place before experiments go ahead?
'I wanted to discuss these things [he bangs the table, refers to a conference he organised in Monte Carlo which was boycotted by his peers] but no one will listen!'
It is a trait that he seems to share with his profession. As the afternoon wears on, I try to ask him why he thinks all the great IVF pioneers have been men, and he answers by telling me more about the ethical Taliban. I wonder about his own childhood, his parents, but he laughs the queries away. Most other questions are waved aside before they have been asked. And in the end I give in to his irrepressible stream of consciousness, of how he has no need for money ('I had three Ferraris 20 years ago'), how he's keen on getting a good press, how he's a fierce litigator, and how he'd like me to write the preface to his memoirs. When I am finally preparing to leave, he grabs my arm a last time. 'If you remember nothing else, remember this!' he says. 'I am for life! Life is wonderful! I am a force of life!'
That, at least, I say, was never in doubt.