For all the speed with which science was progressing, virtually no one had thought it would happen so soon. Yet there it was in huge block letters on the front page of the New York Post: The world's first human clone had been born.
The next day, newspapers across the country ran with the story about the rogue scientists who had cloned a human on an undisclosed island. A spokesman connected to the effort refused to identify the infant, citing a desire to "protect the child from harmful publicity." Legislators quickly called for a ban on human cloning. And just as quickly came warnings that such a ban might choke off medically promising research.
Try March 1978.
Indeed, when representatives of the Raelians, an extraterrestrial-worshipping religious group, announced last week that they had created the world's first human clone, their claim was itself a clone of a similar claim made a quarter-century ago that proved to be a hoax.
It took three months in 1978 for researchers to pick apart the science behind that purported achievement, and three years before a court definitively declared the claim fraudulent.
Now, with the availability of modern DNA fingerprinting, it should take just a few days for scientists to determine whether the alleged clone is indeed a genetic replica of her mother. But there's still room for error in the testing process, and even more room for mischief, scientists warned. If the radical claim of human cloning is to be believed, experts said, it will be important that every detail about how the testing was done be open to outside scientific scrutiny.
"This is a chance to educate the audience about the nature of credible evidence," said Harold Varmus, president of Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center in New York and a vocal proponent of full disclosure of scientific data.
Evidence was in short supply in 1978 when the New York Post's headline sent the world into a tizzy.
David Rorvik, a former science reporter and author of the book "In His Image: The Cloning of Man," said an American millionaire had hired him to set up a lab on an unnamed Pacific island. There, he said, a team of scientists successfully cloned the man from one of his cells, creating a healthy baby boy in a surrogate mother.
That case was unraveled not by scientists but by a court-ordered demand for evidence that led to a legal ruling in 1981 that the story was "a fraud and a hoax," said Alex Boese, author of "The Museum of Hoaxes."
In theory, DNA fingerprinting should bring a speedier and more scientific solution to the current mystery. All that's needed are a couple of blood or tissue samples from the mother and the newborn. If genetic tests show any differences in their DNA patterns, then the baby is not the woman's clone.
It takes just a few hours to conduct the necessary tests. If done right, scientists said, there will be no room for discussion or debate, and iffy results should be eyed with suspicion.
"Given how simple it would be to verify this claim scientifically, if the results are ambiguous or not unanimously accepted by the scientific community, then there's a prima facie case they have something to hide," said Eric Lander, director of the Whitehead/MIT genome-sequencing center in Cambridge, Mass.
Still, Lander and others noted, two matching samples don't by themselves constitute proof.
"They may show two DNA gels with two identical patterns, but that's very easy to do — just take two samples from the same person," Varmus said.
So as part of the independent validation process that's been promised, experts said, it will be necessary to track the "chain of custody" of the blood or skin samples from the moment they are retrieved from the mother and newborn to the moment they are fed into a DNA analyzer. If any specimen is out of sight for even a moment, suspect foul play, said James Randi, founder of the James Randi Educational Foundation, a Fort Lauderdale, Fla., group that polices paranormal claims and pseudoscientific phenomena.
Because cross-contamination between samples is not uncommon, multiple tests, by multiple labs, are usually required to ensure accuracy.
The testing is to be coordinated by a former ABC science correspondent, Michael Guillen, who has said that Clonaid, the company behind the purported cloning, has given him free rein over the process. Guillen holds doctorates in physics, math and astronomy from Cornell University, but some observers don't have much faith in him.
"This man has a reputation," said Randi, the Florida fraud-buster. "He has supported every bit of pseudoscience that's come along. Scientology was just fine with him. Human cloning by a religious cult is right up his alley, and to put him in charge of this kind of thing is like putting the fox in charge of the hen house."
In 1997, Randi's foundation awarded Guillen its annual "Pigasus" award (a pig with wings, as in "When Pigs Fly," the gold standard of impossibility), for his "indiscriminate promotion of pseudoscience and quackery." Guillen defended his reporting in a 1997 article for the American Physics Society, maintaining he was rigorous but open-minded.
It's possible the Raelians really have cloned a person, scientists said, through a combination of skillful hiring and a lot of good luck. But if, as most scientists suspect, the feat is a fiction, what do the Raelians gain by making the claim and then getting busted?
Most science fraud is perpetrated with the hope of not getting caught, said hoax author Boese. But the Raelians, he suspects, pose a "special case."
"They are making their claim so public, I think for them publicity has to be the main motive. Even if it's exposed as a fraud, they've become known to millions," he said.
Based on his studies of previous publicity-driven hoaxes, Boese said, expect the first cloning test results to be ambiguous or otherwise requiring some follow-up.