More MS news articles for August 2001

Scientists Outflanked, Outgunned in Cloning Debate

Wednesday August 1 6:21 PM ET
By Toni Clarke

NEW YORK (Reuters) - Scientists involved in cloning research are being out-maneuvered by well-funded religious and anti-abortion groups, and are unlikely to prevent the United States from banning therapeutic cloning unless they put their message across more forcefully, industry experts say.

On Tuesday, the U.S. House of Representatives voted to outlaw human cloning and to ban the cloning of embryos for the purposes of medical research in a decision that, if confirmed by the U.S. Senate, could put the U.S. biotechnology industry behind Britain and other countries that have less restrictive policies.

If proponents of therapeutic cloning are to be successful, lobbying groups such as the Biotechnology Industry Organization and the Pharmaceutical Research and Manufacturers of America (Phrma) need to enter the debate more aggressively, cloning research advocates say.

"We have a huge job to do in terms of educating the public," said Thomas Tureen, a spokesman for Advanced Cell Technology Inc., a Worcester, Massachusetts-based company that aims to clone cells to treat a variety of diseases, from Parkinson's to Alzheimer's. "If there is to be any salvation out of this it will be that people will wake up to how little thought went into this vote."

Senate Majority Leader Tom Daschle, a South Dakota Democrat, reaffirmed on Tuesday that he opposes cloning "under virtually any circumstances" and that there are "limits to what we can do morally with embryonic stem cell research." That doesn't bode well for stem cell scientists.

The goal of therapeutic cloning is to reprogram an adult's own cells to create new ones that can replace those that are diseased or cannot regenerate themselves.

Under the proposed ban it would still be legal to pursue stem cell science using cells from embryos discarded in in vitro fertilization clinics. But this will not allow patients to gain full benefit from research, according to stem cell researchers.

"IVF tissue, while useful for research, will have limited application in therapy because it is not an exact genetic match for any patient," Tureen said. "That's where the public is confused, I think."

Scientists involved in cloning research are hindered in the public debate by fears that a Frankenstein baby will be created if there are not stringent controls.

"What the House has voted on, disappointingly, is to make the leap from an embryonic stem cell to assume someone will go on to clone a human being," said Jeff Swarz, a portfolio manager at Life Science Group, a Greenwich, Connecticut-based asset management company that specializes in health-care investments. "That's a scientific leap that is far, far into the future."

The biotechnology industry is also being outgunned in the corridors of power. The Biotechnology Industry Organization, for example, has just 10 people in its government relations department and stem cell research is just one of dozens of issues they try to address, according to its spokesman, Michael Werner. The lobbying group doesn't even pretend to have great influence with lawmakers.

He said the group, which represents about 1,000 companies, will "continue to testify and meet with members of Congress," but it will take a back seat to organizations representing patients suffering from various diseases.

"The message will be carried by the patient groups," Werner said. "They are the ones who can put human faces on the debate and can describe the health-care benefit, so they are the ideal folks to do it."

The scientists' cause is getting no help from the big U.S. pharmaceutical companies.

"The only position we take is that our members are not in the business of cloning babies or cloning human beings and we are not going to do it," said Jeffrey Trewhitt, a spokesman for Phrma, which represents the major drug companies.

With such meager support behind them, companies such as Advanced Cell Technology could be forced to abandon their research or move to another country, analysts said.

"Any scientific arena that is stifled by politicians isn't good for the scientific community and may not be good for the general public," Swarz said.

Still, not all companies agree that their voice hasn't been heard, or even should be heard. David Greenwood, chief financial officer of Menlo Park, California-based Geron Corp., said lawmakers are not short of the facts, and deserve time to digest the information given to them during testimony.

"People are making up their minds based on religious or philosophical views and it is not appropriate for us to try to influence people's thoughts in that respect," Greenwood said. "Nor will we attempt to influence public opinion on the question."

Geron, however, has little at stake. It already conducts its research in the U.K., and the one U.S. researcher it had planned to collaborate with on therapeutic cloning, Roger Pedersen from the University of California in San Francisco, said last month that he would defect to take up a lecturing post in England.

Some still maintain, too, that U.S. politicians will eventually come to favor therapeutic cloning as the public becomes aware of the medical benefits.

Swarz points to the furor that occurred two decades ago when recombinant DNA research, or genetic engineering, was first introduced. Once the first genetically engineered form of insulin was created, by Genentech Inc., opposition faded away.

"That was a huge breakthrough as people came to see the enormous benefit of genetic engineering," Swarz said. "I think the same thing will happen with cloning."

Copyright © 2001 Reuters Limited