Frist, Bush react to human cloning

By Stephen S. Glass
Star Staff

   U.S. Senator Bill Frist, R-Tenn., said Monday that he will urge fellow senators to pass legislation banning the cloning of human embryos for medical research or for any other purpose. Legislation against human cloning was passed by the House of Representatives in July.
   "The House has already passed legislation banning human cloning with a strong display of bipartisan agreement," said Frist. "And I'm confident that the Senate will move quickly to address this serious issue in the near future."
   Frist's statement follows an announcement Sunday by a Worcester, Mass., research company, Advanced Cell Technology, that a human embryo had been "successfully" cloned in its laboratories.
   Researchers at ACT published their findings online Sunday in the journal e-biomed: The Journal of Regenerative Medicine, and in the online version of Scientific American.
   The researchers say they are eager to develop replacement cells for individuals suffering from a wide range of illnesses, including diabetes, heart disease, and Parkinson's disease. Because regenerative stem cells could eventually be cloned from a patient's own body, researchers say, the likelihood of rejection, which often occurs in transplants, would be all but eliminated.
   Many opponents of the research fear that it will open the door for reproductive cloning, but in Sunday's article, representatives for ACT made it clear that they are interested only in "therapeutic cloning," not reproduction.
   "Therapeutic cloning -- which seeks, for example, to use the genetic material from patients' own cells to generate pancreatic islets to treat diabetes or nerve cells to repair damaged spinal cords -- is distinct from reproductive cloning, which aims to implant a cloned embryo into a woman's uterus leading to the birth of a cloned baby," said Doctors Jose Cibelli, Robert Lanza and Michael West in their Scientific American report. West is both president and CEO of ACT.
   "We believe that reproductive cloning has potential risks for both mother and fetus that make it unwarranted at this time," the doctors said. "And we support a restriction on cloning for reproductive purposes until the safety and ethical issues surrounding it are resolved."
   But Frist said Monday that regardless of the intentions of researchers at ACT or elsewhere, Congress should put a stop to human cloning -- period.
   "[Sunday's] news that scientists have successfully cloned a human embryo is extremely troubling," said Frist. "Despite clear and repeated warnings that human cloning was imminent, science has once again outpaced public policy. Moving forward with research on human cloning crosses a very dangerous ethical line that shouldn't be crossed -- even for potential scientific gain."
   Frist was not alone in his condemnation of the company's efforts to clone human embryos. President Bush said, "The use of embryos to clone is wrong. We should not as a society grow life to destroy it."
   Bush joined Frist in calling for lawmakers to prevent any future research in the field. Frist said that cloning is not necessary to carry out significant research with stem cells.
   "We've learned that research like embryonic stem cell research, which I support, can and will be conducted without a reliance on human cloning, and that prohibiting human cloning does not prevent promising research from going forward," he said.
   But proponents of cloning like West, Cibelli and Lanza say that the number of stem cells available from leftover in vitro fertilizations -- the federal government will only fund research with such cells -- may not be varied enough to create replacement tissues for a genetically diverse population.
   However alarming or appealing the news from ACT may seem, the company's researchers admit that they are far from creating viable embryos for stem cell production.
   In their reports, ACT researchers said they removed genetic material from an unfertilized egg and inserted in its place the DNA from two types of adult cells, skin cells and cumulus cells. Cumulus cells are cells which usually nurture developing eggs while they are in the ovaries.
   The group's best results came when they used cumulus cells, but even their best results were tentative.
   "Of the eight cells we injected with cumulus cells, two divided to form early embryos of four cells -- and one progressed to at least six cells before growth stopped," the doctors said.
   All of the "early embryos" developed by ACT eventually ceased to create new cells.
   "With a little luck, we had hoped to coax the early embryos to divide into hollow spheres of 100 or so cells called blastocysts," they said. "We intended to isolate human stem cells from the blastocysts to serve as the starter stock for growing replacement nerve, muscle and other tissues."
   Predictably, the DC-based National Right to Life Committee called ACT's research immoral and echoed the president's call for legislative action.
   "This corporation is creating human embryos for the sole purpose of killing them and harvesting their cells," the group's legislative director, Douglas Johnson, told members of the Associated Press. "Unless Congress acts quickly, this corporation and others will be opening human embryo farms."
   Sen. Sam Brownback, R-Kan., told reporters during a news conference yesterday in Washington that he intends to push the Senate to adopt the House bill before Christmas. Brownback said he will press for at least a six-month moratorium on research if the Senate refused to adopt the bill.
   The Senate refused to adopt anti-cloning legislation in 1998, shortly after scientists at Scotland's Roslin Institute cloned Dolly the sheep. Brownback said that the issue seemed only theoretical at the time, but that today the concerns of legislators are very real.
   Sen. Arlen Specter, R-Penn., has vowed to fight tooth and nail against senators who wish to push through a quick vote on the issue.
   "I'm prepared to go to the mat on it," Specter said.