Jan. 8, 2003
While Congress was away, Clonaid, a company supported by the Raelians, claimed two cloned human babies and three more on the way. It didn't take long for the 108th Congress to respond. On its second day, Reps. Dave Weldon, MD (R-FL) and Bart Stupak (D-MI) announced that they will introduce legislation into the House of Representatives intended to ban human cloning. The bill is in response to both the Raelians, whose credibility Rep. Weldon doubts, and researchers and physicians in the U.S. and other countries who have announced intentions to pursue reproductive human cloning.
Entitled the Human Cloning Prohibition Act of 2003, the bill would ban human cloning for both therapeutic and reproductive purposes. Leaving out therapeutic human cloning would make the bill unenforceable, Rep. Weldon said, because the techniques are virtually identical and take place in private laboratories that are difficult to police.
In therapeutic cloning, after the formation of an embryo, some of the embryo's cells would be harvested and implanted back into the patient, replacing, for example, nerve cells that have been ravaged by Parkinson's disease or a spinal injury. Therapeutic cloning has yet to be demonstrated in humans, but there is evidence that it works in animals, according to Robert Lanza, MD, medical director of Advanced Cell Technologies, a company that is developing treatments using such cells.
Rep. Weldon hastened to add that the bill would allow cloning of animals and their cells and tissues, and current stem cell research performed on existing normal human embryos could continue. Researchers also have made some progress in using adult stem cells harvested from a patient and then reimplanting them after bolstering them in the lab. Such approaches have potential, but most scientists agree that adult-derived stem cells do not have the same potency and flexibility as embryonic stem cells.
"[The bill] will not stifle research," Weldon said.
Dr. Lanza isn't so sure. He says that three thousand Americans die every day from diseases that could be treated with embryonic stem cells if the field reaches its potential. "This research is going to proceed overseas regardless of what we do here in the U.S. Anyone who is going to abuse this technology is not going to want to face a $10 million fine and a prison sentence.... it would penalize patients," Dr. Lanza told Medscape.
The bill requires that, if it passes, the General Accounting Office (GAO) will be required to revisit the issue in four years. If researchers make significant strides in animal models and demonstrate that therapeutic cloning is ready to make an impact in human patients, the GAO could recommend to Congress that it consider lifting a ban on therapeutic cloning, Rep. Weldon said.
Not good enough, said Dr. Lanza. "Three thousand people are dying every day. They don't have four years."
Reviewed by Gary D. Vogin, MD
Jim Kling is a freelance writer for WebMD.
© 2003 Medscape