Life-saving research can't wait

April 23, 2002|By Carl B. Feldbaum

WASHINGTON - President Bush courageously endorsed federal funding of embryonic stem-cell research in August. But he recently took a leap backward by adopting the inflammatory rhetoric of anti-abortion activists who oppose biomedical research using cloning technology (therapeutic cloning).

It was especially dismaying to hear a popular president talk of "embryo farms" and "human beings ... grown for spare body parts."

Similarly lurid imagery was deployed in the 1970s against the then-nascent technology of recombinant DNA - "the genetic super race," Brave New World, Frankenstein and "man playing God."

But recombinant DNA has been a blessing, yielding insulin, growth hormone, clotting factors for hemophiliacs, hormones to treat infertility, clot dissolvers for heart attack and stroke victims, replacement proteins for rare genetic disorders, disease-modifying agents for rheumatoid arthritis and multiple sclerosis and a wave of targeted, antibody-based medicines for cancer patients.

Scientists have adhered to a moratorium on the ethically problematic applications of recombinant DNA, such as human germ-line gene transfer.

The scientific community, including the prestigious National Academy of Sciences, has likewise drawn a bright line between human reproductive cloning and therapeutic research using the same technology.

Mr. Bush's comments on cloning were timed to influence a forthcoming Senate vote that will decide whether scientists in the United States will be allowed to conduct therapeutic research that could translate embryonic stem-cell research into real-world therapies. As an April 10 statement signed by 40 Nobel laureates noted, a ban on therapeutic applications of cloning "would impede progress against some of the most debilitating diseases known to man."

President Bush has endorsed Senate Bill 1899, sponsored by Sen. Sam Brownback, a Kansas Republican, which would impose criminal penalties for research into such applications of cloning and for the importation of products developed elsewhere using the technology. This law would put researchers in prison for applying the technique and, through the importation provision, would punish American patients who seek treatments developed elsewhere, such as in Britain, which has sanctioned therapeutic cloning research.

As for the ethics of this research, I share with its critics a deep belief that human lives are sacred; that's why I am a passionate advocate for science, including therapeutic cloning research, that could save lives.

This is at heart a debate about values: Those who oppose therapeutic cloning research believe a pinhead cluster of undifferentiated cells possesses equal moral standing with the lives of people who might be treated with those cells or with therapies developed through the study of the cloning process.

Support for therapeutic uses of cloning is widespread and growing as people learn the truth about the technology. That support crosses party lines. A Pew poll released last week found that only 39 percent of Americans say that "not destroying human embryos" is more important than "conducting medical research toward cures."

Forty-seven percent ranked medical research more important, and the remainder were undecided. When the question is worded more positively, as in a recent bipartisan poll conducted by the Tarrance Group, 59 percent say they believe research into cloning to provide cells that could be used to treat various diseases would improve their quality of life.

Scientists cannot promise cures, but they can promise to explore every ethical avenue available that may save lives or that may dramatically improve the quality of life for those who are ill or disabled.

Therapeutic cloning research could lead to a biomedical revolution similar in scope to that of recombinant DNA.

It would be tragic if Americans - whose investment in biomedical research dwarfs that of any other nation - were barred from its benefits.

Carl B. Feldbaum is president of the Biotechnology Industry Organization.

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