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Drug Firms Plead Case for Therapy Amid Cloning Debate

Jan 06, 2003

Drug companies pioneering the use of stem cells to treat incurable diseases are pleading the case for cloning research amid a furor over claims by the Raelian UFO sect to have created two cloned infants.

Industry leaders fear an ill-informed backlash against all cloning would jeopardize research into novel ways of treating diseases such as atherosclerosis, diabetes, Alzheimer's and Parkinson's disease.

"It may swing opinion strongly to doing something urgently about reproductive cloning, which we would have no problem with," Simon Best, chairman of the US Biotechnology Industry Organization's bioethics committee, said Monday.

"But in the US this is a very political issue and it may add weight to efforts to reintroduce legislation in the Senate banning all types of cloning, and that would be a concern," he told Reuters.

Best, the chief executive of Scotland's Ardana Biosciences, believes it will be many weeks before the world learns whether cloning claims made by the Raelian movement, which believes the human race was created by aliens, are anything more than a publicity stunt.

But there is a risk that public alarm will bury the distinction between reproductive cloning and therapeutic cloning.

"Those who don't know the difference will tar it all with the same brush...I think there is going to be a bit of a negative backlash," said Larissa Thomas, a biotechnology industry analyst with Canaccord Capital in London.

Trevor Jones, chairman of Europe's first listed stem cell company, ReNeuron Holdings Plc, thinks it will be 5 years before the first treatments from therapeutic cloning are available.

In addition to proving that stem cell therapy works, companies also need to assure regulators like the US Food and Drug Administration that they can make uniform and safe batches. Stem cells may trigger the same rejection problems encountered in transplantation, while their uncontrolled proliferation may have oncogenic potential.

One option is to use cloning technology to produce stem cells tailored to the genetic profile of an individual. But this is likely to be very costly. Other possibilities include harvesting stem cells from aborted fetuses or adults.

"The critical thing is that research is allowed to continue on all the possible methods because the potential benefits are so large," Best said.

Any further clampdown on cloning in the US, where strict limits on federal funding were imposed in 2001, could play into the hands of Britain, which already has clear rules that ban reproductive cloning but allow therapeutic research.

The UK's Medical Research Council announced plans last August to establish a stem cell bank that will contain adult, fetal and embryonic stem cells in a move that is expected to accelerate the pace of research.

© 2003 Reuters Ltd