WASHINGTON, DC — The US debate on human cloning gathered steam this week, moving toward federal legislation that could affect both next fall's Congressional elections and the pre-eminence of US scientists in the worldwide race to turn research on human embryonic stem cells into a therapeutic revolution.
Testimony at a US Senate hearing on 5 March debated a bill proffered by Republican Senator Sam Brownback (Kansas) that would impose criminal penalties on all attempts at transferring a human somatic cell nucleus into a human egg, whether the purpose was to create an infant (usually called reproductive cloning) or to derive embryonic stem cells for disease research (usually called therapeutic cloning.) The US House of Representatives passed a similar total ban last year. Two other bills have also been introduced into the Senate; both would ban reproductive human cloning but permit therapeutic cloning.
Meanwhile, President Bush is expected to fill the long-vacant top job at the National Institutes of Health this week with Elias Zerhouni, executive vice dean of the Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine in Baltimore. For several months the front-runner for NIH director had been AIDS expert Anthony Fauci, head of the National Institute of Immunological Diseases and Stroke. The campaign against Fauci was led by Brownback, who regarded him as insufficiently pro-life. Zerhouni is said to have endorsed Brownback's anti-cloning bill in writing.
The Bush administration also proposed last week that the United Nations adopt a Brownback-type worldwide ban on human cloning, including therapeutic cloning. The UN is considering prohibiting reproductive cloning, but delegates from Europe and Asia oppose interfering with cloning to produce embryonic stem cells for research.
Also this week, the Canadian Institutes of Health Research — the country's largest research funder — announced that it will fund research on aborted fetal tissue and on leftover embryos that would otherwise be discarded from fertility clinics (although Canada will prohibit creation of human embryos for research). That makes Canadian regulations more restrictive than the rules just implemented in the UK, but more permissive than those now in force in the US, where embryo research can be done only with private money. The Canadian rule is similar to guidelines proposed by NIH in 2000, which would have allowed public funding for research on spare embryos. That plan was abandoned after Bush was named to the presidency. The new rules for Canada will also allow importation of embryonic stem cells for research, a proposal Germany adopted in January.
The US Senate hearing starred Christopher Reeve, Hollywood's former Superman, a persuasive high-profile advocate for stem cell research who is handsome as ever, but paralyzed from the shoulders down and unable to breathe on his own because of a riding accident some years ago. Testifying against the Brownback bill, Reeve told the hearing that only human embryonic stem cells carrying his own DNA offered hope for remyelinating his devastated spinal nerves via an immunologically compatible cell transplant.
Also testifying against the bill was the hearing's scientific star, Nobel laureate Paul Berg of Stanford University. Berg argued that human stem cells not only could solve the problem of transplant rejections, they also could provide a unique source of information about common chronic late-onset diseases such as cancer. Studying cells from young people carrying mutations that predispose them to complex disorders could illuminate the disease process and generate clues to prevention or cure, he said. As both these applications are based on transfer of particular nuclei into human eggs, he pointed out, none of the existing 78 human embryonic stem cell lines President Bush approved for federally funded research last summer would be useful either for complex disease research or for compatible transplants.
Berg also objected strongly to both the Brownback and the House bills' ban on importing therapies based on human embryonic stem cell research done elsewhere in the world. That would prevent 280 million Americans from taking advantage of treatments developed in nations such as the UK where some of this research is permitted, he pointed out. It might even mean that Americans who seek such treatments abroad could be arrested and fined when they return, he predicted.
Both Reeve and Berg have suggested that a comprehensive ban on human cloning would put US scientists at a competitive disadvantage. The US would take a giant step backward in research leadership, Reeve noted, and anyway the work would be done abroad, for example in Europe. "Those are not rogue nations behaving irresponsibly," he told the Senate. Berg has said that he hopes China's openness to therapeutic cloning will help the US set aside some of its misgivings, lest it fall behind in a biotech race with China. Carl B. Feldbaum, president of the Biotechnology Industry Organization, the biggest trade group, has also weighed in. "Criminalizing therapeutic cloning and treatments based on the technology, as Senator Sam Brownback proposes, would move the research and its benefits overseas, and out of reach to Americans," he said on Tuesday.
Testifying in favor of the bill was Judy Norsigian, of the Boston Women's Health Book Collective, an author of the well-known self-help book
A Senate vote on human cloning is expected this spring, perhaps before the Easter recess early in April. Pro-research lobbyists think there is a chance that the Senate will not agree to the House's total ban, voting down the Brownback bill and instead adopting a bill that permits therapeutic cloning. If so, legislation that could reconcile the Senate and House viewpoints seems unlikely. Human cloning could thus become an issue in next fall's Congressional elections, where all of the House seats and a third of those in the Senate are up for grabs.
Some groups have already jumped in with political advertising. Last week the National Right to Life Committee launched radio ads aimed at Utah voters, urging them to tell Senator Hatch to "say no to embryo hatcheries." A conservative group called Stop Human Cloning has taken aim at Senate Majority Leader Tom Daschle, a Democrat from South Dakota, and two Georgia senators with television ads. On the other side is the National Stem Cell Research Coalition; a Hollywood effort organized around Reeve and several film industry figures who have children with diabetes. It has announced an ad campaign promoting the benefits of the research and is thinking about producing a documentary.