- The Washington Times - Thursday, November 28, 2002

SHANGHAI China has cleared two technological hurdles and faces just one more before it can begin cloning the endangered giant panda, the scientist heading the project told colleagues.
Chen Dayuan summed up his findings in a speech Sunday at a ceremony to mark the 10th anniversary of a panda research center in the southeastern city of Fuzhou, which has assisted in the cloning effort, according to a colleague who was there.
"Only one more problem stands between our country and successful cloning of pandas," according to the state-run Xinhua news agency, which reported on the speech.
Other Chinese scientists said they doubted the program could be that close, questioning whether its results could be consistently replicated in a laboratory.
The project, based in a Beijing lab operated by the Chinese Academy of Sciences, has been widely criticized by Chinese scientists. They call it too expensive and say protecting southwest China's mountain forests is a better way to save the 1,000 pandas left in the wild.
Mr. Chen told colleagues the last challenge was figuring out how to keep a panda fetus alive in a surrogate mother's womb until it was mature enough for birth, recounted the head of the Fuzhou Panda Research Center, Chen Yucun. Chen is a common name in China and the two are not related.
Chen Dayuan said researchers had come this far by successfully solving two other large problems: How to create a panda embryo using the ovum of a different species and how to implant the embryo in the uterus of a surrogate mother, also of a different species.
Researchers used the ovum of a rabbit because only one in five panda females is even capable of producing a fully developed ovum, Mr. Chen was quoted as saying by his colleague.
The low fertility contributes to the pandas' famously slow rate of reproduction.
After creating their first man-made panda embryo in late 1998, Chinese scientists finally succeeded last year in implanting one into the uterus of a cat, Mr. Chen said.
The cat died two months later and the experiment has not been successfully repeated, he said.
For the next step, Mr. Chen said scientists would choose a surrogate mother from a species closer to pandas, like a bear.
Wang Dajun, a panda researcher at Peking University, said he had not seen evidence that Chen Dayuan's group had figured out how to consistently create a panda embryo from a rabbit ovum.
"Cloning is meaningless to saving the panda. Even if several individuals were cloned, they might be too short-lived or unhealthy," Mr. Wang said. "If we depend on cloning, the pandas will be gone before the technology becomes viable."


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