Cloned human embryos draw focus, fire

Politicians eye issue

work's value debated

November 27, 2001|By Tom Pelton | Tom Pelton,SUN STAFF

A Massachusetts company's announcement Sunday that it had created the first cloned human embryos may generate more political backlash than accolades for the scientific breakthrough.

Less than a day after Advanced Cell Technology reported the existence of its microscopic clusters of human cells - which died after a few hours - President Bush urged Congress to outlaw all human cloning.

"We should not, as a society, grow life to destroy it," Bush told reporters yesterday. "It's morally wrong."

The House passed legislation banning this kind of procedure earlier this year, and the Senate - distracted by war and security concerns since Sept. 11 - may soon vote on prohibition. Sen. Sam Brownback, a Kansas Republican, said yesterday that he will sponsor a bill that would impose at least a six-month moratorium on human cloning.

A spokesman for Senate Majority Leader Tom Daschle said the Democrat would bring a debate about cloning to the floor in February or March.

Organizations around the world, ranging from the Vatican to the European Commission and the Association of German Doctors weighed in against the company's research yesterday.

"Not everything scientifically possible and technologically feasible is necessarily desirable or admissible," European Research Commissioner Philippe Busquin said in a statement.

Meanwhile, scientists debated the significance of the announcement. Some hailed it as a milestone, while others said that the cells produced by the biotech firm could not be considered embryos.

Dr. John Gearhart, a pioneering stem cell researcher at the Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine, said yesterday that he regarded the company's experiment a failure. The clusters of cells died, he said, before they could be considered viable embryos or produce stem cells, the undifferentiated building blocks of the human body that researchers hope can be used to replace damaged nerve cells.

"This certainly is not what I would consider a clone," said Gearhart. "You would like to see some healthy normal embryos produced, and when they die so quickly like this, it shows they weren't normal."

In an article in the online Journal of Regenerative Medicine, Advanced Cell Technology scientists said that they had taken cells from a 40-year-old Texas man paralyzed by a cycling accident and others and injected them into eggs donated by women.

The purpose, they said, was not to clone a human being. The scientists wanted to create embryos from which they could harvest stem cells that could potentially replace the dead nerve cells of people with spinal injuries, Parkinson's disease and other illnesses.

The product was fertilized eggs that divided into clusters of four and six cells, but then died before they were old enough to produce stem cells. Embryos need to be several days old, and to have grown between 30 and 200 cells, to be ripe for stem cell harvest.

Michael West, chief executive officer of Advanced Cell Technology, said the potential for medical advancement promised by his company's research was far more important than the complaints of critics. "We are optimistic these first steps are going to be important ones in the history of medicine," West said.

However Ruth Faden, a bioethicist at Johns Hopkins, said the company's work may not be a scientific watershed. This is in part because scientists long knew from the cloning of animals that people could also be cloned, she said.

And researchers in South Korea claimed in 1998 that they had cloned a human embryo, although many doubted this assertion because it was never published in a scientific journal.

But Faden said the political uproar from this week's event is extremely important, because Congress had almost forgotten the cloning issue because of the war in Afghanistan. Now legislation on a possible ban on human cloning is back on the agenda.

"It may have moved the science forward a little bit," Faden said of the company's announcement. "But in public policy terms, this is a huge event."

Supporters of the company's research say that although stem-cell research is still in its infancy, cloning human embryos could provide a vital supply of stem cells.

Some, however, worry about for-profit companies across the country creating "farms" of embryos from which they could harvest stem cells. Although the company says it has no intention of creating babies, the same technology could be used to clone children for infertile couples or create organ donors.

Since the cloning of Dolly the sheep in 1997, researchers have known that they could clone animals and probably humans by removing the genetic material from an egg and replacing it with the genes from an adult cell.

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