U.S. could miss the boat on cloning, worry expert

NEW YORK, Reuters

The U.S. could miss the boat on one of the century’s most important fields of medical research and drive away many top scientists if it outlaws cloning of embryos for medical research, scientists said on Wednesday.

Their warnings come a day after the U.S. House of Representatives approved a sweeping ban on human cloning, which would impose stiff jail terms and fines for making babies that are cloned from adults, or to create embryos for medical research.

Cloned embryos are embryos made by inserting the DNA of an individual into an egg whose nucleus has been removed. An electrical current spurs growth of an embryo, which is genetically identical to the person.

“This legislation would force scientists to leave the United States and go to other countries like the United Kingdom because it carries prison sentences and severe fines that will not be taken lightly,” said David Humpherys, a molecular biologist at the Whitehead Institute in Cambridge, Massachusetts.

The bill would also forbid importation of cloned embryos or medical treatments derived from cloned embryos, a provision that was especially upsetting to Dr. Paul Berg, a Stanford University professor who won the Nobel Prize in 1980 for his work on recombinant DNA chemistry.

“I can’t imagine anything more arrogant than to say the entire American public would not be allowed to benefit from therapies that might develop in England, Japan, France, Germany, or other countries that allow cloning research,” said Berg.

Although scientists agreed cloning should not be allowed for creating babies, they argued it should remain legal to clone embryos to harvest their stem cells and to better understand how human tissues are developed.

Stem calls, primitive master cells that theoretically can be coaxed into forming virtually any cell type in the body, have been billed as a possible unlimited future source of heart, liver, and brain cells that could be used as treatments to regenerate diseased organs.

But extracting the stem cells kills the emerging embryo, creating a right-to-life argument that held sway in the Republican-dominated House. The bill, supported by President George W. Bush, now awaits action by the Democratic-led Senate, where it is expected to face an uphill battle.

“Human cloning is ethically and morally offensive and contradicts virtually everything America stands for,” House Judiciary Committee Chairman James Sensenbrenner, a Wisconsin Republican said Tuesday.

But, Stanford’s Berg called the House vote “a disgraceful decision — and what was almost as disgraceful was that most of the people voting on the bill didn’t understand the issues. It was clearly a political vote to uphold the President’s position.”

“With the heavy-handedness of this law, scientists may just say, ‘Hell no, I’m not going to jail or pay heavy fines” and head abroad, Berg said.

Dr. John Gearhart, a Johns Hopkins University professor who three years ago pioneered the isolation of human embryonic stem cells, said the anti-cloning legislation would be a “serious setback” for American science.

“The likelihood is that the most cutting-edge research would move to the United Kingdom and other countries that allow it to go forward,” said Gearhart.

Gearhart said some scientists are already leaving the country over concern that Bush will soon forbid the federal government from sponsoring research involving any type of embryonic stem cells, including those derived from thousands of frozen embryos discarded each year by fertility clinics.

Even if stem cells realize their promise, and generate specialized cells that can be transplanted into patients, Gearhart said patients would likely have to take toxic immunosuppressive drugs for life in order to prevent their bodies from rejecting the transplanted cells.

Gearhart said graft rejections would not be a problem, however, if the stem cells were derived from embryos cloned from a patient’s own DNA, a concept called therapeutic cloning.

In a Catch-22, Gearhart added that scientists need to study cloned embryos to find ways to generate stem cells directly from normal tissue, such as from skin, and bypass the need to use eggs.

“We desperately need to learn the molecular biology so we can take a skin cell and generate a nerve out of it, without having to go back to an egg and create an embryo” for that purpose, Gearhart said.