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A religious cult that believes aliens created the first people claims one of its followers will give birth to the first human clone later this month – beating maverick Italian gynecologist Severino Antinori to the milestone by several weeks.

The first of five followers of Raelianism implanted with cloned embryos is due to give birth to a girl by the end of the year, announced the millennial cult’s chief scientist, Brigitte Boisselier.

“We have five pregnancies under way, of which one is almost due,” she said. “We will have the first (baby) soon,” said Boisselier, managing director of the group’s Las Vegas, Nevada-based Clonaid project. She declined to give an exact date of birth, but said the cloned baby was due sometime before the end of the year.

Two U.S. couples, two Asian couples and one European couple are involved in the project. One of the American couples was expecting the first birth, a baby girl, she said.

Raelians, who claim to number 55,000 people worldwide, believe the first humans were cloned by aliens who visited the Earth in flying saucers 25,000 years ago.

They believe these aliens, or Elohim – a Hebrew word referring to God – will return to Jerusalem when there is world peace and an embassy has been built for them.

The movement was founded by former French motoring journalist and racing car driver Claude Vorilhon, who renamed himself Rael after being visited in 1973 by a member of the Elohim. He described his visitor as being about 3-feet tall with long black hair, almond-shaped eyes, olive skin and exuding “harmony and humor.”

He says he discovered through this meeting that his father was an alien, and that he was taken in the flying saucer to meet Jesus, Buddha and Joseph Smith, the founder of the Mormons. Rael, who lives in Quebec, now describes himself as a prophet and claims that cloning will enable humanity to attain eternal life.

Dr. Antinori announced in Rome last week the world’s first cloned human being, a boy, would be born in January. Antinori said the mother, in the 33rd week of pregnancy, and the fetus were doing well.

Cloning provides a genetic duplicate of another creature.

The predominant method around the world entails removing the nucleus, or core, from an egg and replacing it with DNA from a donor. This DNA “reprograms” the egg, transferring into it the entire genetic code of the donor.

The big problem, however, is to ensure that all the genes in this transferred code work properly, performing the dazzlingly complex business which is the making of tissue and the repairing of it.

Wide-ranging tests in lab animals, and the experience of cloned farm animals including Dolly the Sheep, have found that – even though all the genes are there – many of them do not appear to switch on and off as they should.

Malfunctioning genes can cause an embryo to become malformed, prompting the body to expel it in a miscarriage.

Boisselier said that her organization had brought together cells to obtain more than 300 human embryos ahead of implantation.

They had also performed some 3,500 experiments on the ova of cows and pigs before starting to experiment on human eggs.

Many biotechnologists are repelled by the ethical dilemma posed by human cloning as well as the risk to the first cloned babies, and many governments have raced to pass laws that ban reproductive cloning.

Yet this has not prevented a race among scientific mavericks to become the first to clone a human.

U.S. fertility specialist Panos Zavos told Congress in May that five groups of scientists were racing to produce the first cloned human baby.

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