Dressed in a dark wool coat that protects him against the bitter November wind of the North China plain, Xiangzhong ``Jerry'' Yang looks down at his grave site as television cameras record the moment.
The right half of his face, the half not disfigured by surgery to remove cancerous tumors from under his eye, twitches slightly as he looks at the plot. It is located only a few hundred yards from where he tended pigs as a teenager.
``This,'' Yang says simply, ``is where I want to rest.''
On this blustery day in the fall of 2003, the 44-year-old Yang is framed by dozens of residents of Dong Cun, who have turned out to welcome home a former neighbor and now, a national hero. Yang's cloning success in America is celebrated throughout China. The film crew is making a documentary that will be broadcast to hundreds of millions of viewers in his native country. In this village where he nearly starved four decades earlier, they already know his story by heart.
Yang has faith he can fulfill his ultimate dream before cancer brings him back to this site for the last time. Thousands of miles away in Storrs, he is laying plans to create human embryonic stem cells through cloning in an effort to find new cures for heart disease, Parkinson's, maybe even cancer someday.
His own cancer stalled for now, he is hoping to find a way to cheat death, if only on the molecular level.
At the same time, in labs scattered across the world, a handful of elite international scientists have the same idea.
And they are determined to get there first.
Yang's competition is formidable. The other researchers have money, charm, good looks, prestige and the backing of renowned scientific institutions. Yang is a diminutive animal embryologist who labors with English and works in the relative obscurity of a laboratory in sleepy Storrs.
Kevin Eggan is a certifiable hot-shot. Before turning 30, Eggan had built a national reputation at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology for his cloning work with mice and his investigation into DNA reprogramming. Now at Harvard, Eggan's honors pile up like blurbs on a book jacket: ``Top 10 Brilliant Minds'' (Popular Science) and ``Top Innovator Under the Age of 35'' (Technology Review).
To coeds in Cambridge, the 6-foot-2 bachelor scientist with the rugged physique of an avid rock climber is a stem cell sex symbol. As his cloning ambitions become public, he becomes ``Mad Harvard Scientist'' to right-to-life bloggers.
But Eggan, like Yang, is unfazed by the mounting political, cultural and financial barriers to cloning. The field is littered with wounded reputations, regulatory booby-traps and ethical land mines, which have chased many scientists from the field. But Eggan keeps his focus on a key biological question:
What is the best way to reprogram DNA to become young again?
Eggan has explored many different ways to get a human's older cells to turn back the developmental clock and regain the potential to become any cell type. Cloning -- or somatic cell nuclear transfer -- is just one of many techniques. But Eggan argues that it is silly not to pursue cloning; it is the only way, so far, that has been proven able to create young cells from old DNA.
Eggan agrees with staunch foes of embryonic stem cell research about one thing: It is unlikely cloning will be of much value, at least in the short run, in creating enough genetically identical cells to create new organs or tissue.
It will, however, be invaluable in studying how mankind's diseases evolve and in developing new treatments, Eggan has come to believe.
MEDICAL BLACK BOX
The symptoms of many degenerative diseases, such as Parkinson's or Alzheimer's, appear only after the damage at the cellular level is done, Eggan explains. Before Type 1 diabetes is diagnosed, for example, almost all insulin-producing islet cells in the pancreas have been destroyed by immune system attacks.
Now, for scientists to isolate the molecular underpinnings of these diseases, they have to perform an after-the-fact guessing game, the medical equivalent of finding the cause of a plane crash by assembling pieces of a fuselage.