WASHINGTON (Reuters Health) Nov 26 - The announcement by a US company that it has cloned a human embryo for the first time has set off a heated debate on the ethics of the research with President Bush saying he totally opposes human embryo cloning.
Biotechnology company Advanced Cell Technology Inc. (ACT), based in Worcester, Massachusetts, said the breakthrough was aimed not at creating a human being but at mining the embryo for stem cells to treat diseases ranging from Parkinson's to juvenile diabetes.
However within hours of the announcement, the research was denounced by religious groups and key US political leaders, both Republican and Democrat.
"Some may call it a medical breakthrough. I believe it is a moral breakdown," Raymond Flynn, president of the National Catholic Alliance and a former US ambassador to the Vatican, said in a statement.
"Human reproduction is now in the hands of men, when it rightfully belongs in the hands of God."
Although animals have been cloned repeatedly since Dolly the sheep in 1997, and although there were no real technical barriers to making a cloned human embryo, the breakthrough crossed a line that left many around the world uneasy.
ACT Vice President Joe Cibelli, who led the research, said his team had used classic cloning technology using a human egg and a human skin cell. They removed the DNA from the egg cell and replaced it with DNA from the nucleus of the adult cell.
The egg began dividing as if it had been fertilized by a sperm, but was stopped from becoming a baby — at the stage at which it was still a ball of cells. The same technology has been used to clone sheep, cattle and monkeys.
The company was at pains to stress that it did not intend to create ranks of genetically identical babies.
"Our intention is not to create cloned human beings, but rather to make lifesaving therapies for a wide range of human disease conditions, including diabetes, strokes, cancer, AIDS, and neurodegenerative disorders such as Parkinson's and Alzheimer's disease," Dr. Robert Lanza, a vice president at ACT, said in a statement.
But despite the assurance there was a swift thumbs down from the White House.
"The president is 100% opposed to any cloning of human embryos," A White House aide told CNN.
The US Congress has moved to outlaw all human cloning. A proposed new law is under consideration by the Senate, where lawmakers expressed some alarm at Sunday's news.
Michael West, chief executive officer of ACT, hinted that moves in Congress were why the company moved so quickly to report its findings. Federal law prohibits the use of taxpayer money for experimenting on human embryos but ACT is a privately funded company and can do as it pleases — for now.
The House has already backed a broad ban on this type of research but the Senate has not yet taken up companion legislation, and several senators said they did not want to rush into legislation without fully understanding the scientific implications.
"With this new breakthrough, the Senate will step back and say we can see that we can't stop the march of science; where do we want the draw the proper public policy and moral lines?" Illinois Democrat Sen. Dick Durbin said on CNN's "Late Edition.
The National Right to Life Committee immediately called on the Senate to enact the House ban.
"Any senator who votes against the ban on human cloning will be voting to approve human embryo farms opening for business soon," said the group's legislative director, Douglas Johnson.
Senate Majority Leader Tom Daschle told Fox News he supported cloning for research purposes, "but we vehemently oppose any cloning for purposes of human replication."
"I find it (cloning) very, very troubling. I think most of the Congress would," Sen. Patrick Leahy, a Vermont Democrat, said on NBC's "Meet the Press."
Some lawmakers also noted that if
the research was banned in the United States, it would probably continue
overseas, and they called for an international code for such research around
Copyright © 2001 Reuters Ltd
Copyright © 2001 Reuters Ltd