Cloning progresses, debate stalls
A promising technology makes odd political bedfellows
February 17, 2002 Posted: 12:57 PM EST (1757 GMT)


WASHINGTON (Reuters) -- It's not often that Orrin Hatch, the conservative Republican senator from Utah, and Dianne Feinstein, the liberal Democratic senator from California, agree on anything.

Still, the unlikely pair see eye-to-eye on a subject that has divided Congress, scientists and public opinion along unlikely lines -- whether cloning technology should be used with human cells in a promising approach to fighting disease.

The science is moving forward quickly with animals. Just last week, the first cat was cloned in what the scientists said was a way to blend scientific research with pure, unabashed sentimentality. But the idea of cloning humans raises hackles.

"I am a conservative and an unabashed pro-life, religious conservative at that," Hatch told a recent hearing of the Senate Judiciary committee. Yet he backs research that other religious conservatives call murder.

Even odder, normally liberal groups such as Greenpeace have come down on the side of those who would ban cloning.

No one is arguing that people should be cloned -- that a baby who's the genetic copy of an adult should be created.

But cloning technology can make very early embryos that could be used as a source of stem cells -- the powerful master cells that can be used to grow any kind of cell or tissue in the body.

Several groups are working to this end and Massachusetts-based Advanced Cell Technology says it has made three very early human embryos using cloning technology, although they didn't grow large enough to harvest stem cells.

The big attraction: Stem cells
Hatch, Feinstein and others agree this is an extremely promising technology. In theory, a doctor could take a tiny plug of skin from a patient and use it to grow that patient a new heart or a batch of replacement brain cells. No organ donor would be needed, no grieving family would need be involved, no anti-rejection drugs needed to keep the recipient healthy.

Researchers have already coaxed stem cells to become brain

cells, and, in unconfirmed reports, into something resembling a working kidney in animals.

"I believe strongly that it would be a disaster to ban this kind of valuable research," Feinstein said.

Supporters see little moral dilemma.

"We are talking about a cluster of cells. I just don't think that is a person," Kris Gulden of the Center for the Advancement of Medical Research in Washington told the Judiciary Committee hearing. But opponents say the process involves making and destroying a human life, however tiny, and pledge to outlaw the fledgling technology.

Push for 'therapeutic cloning'
"I think the jury is out on what the moral status of these beings might be," said Richard Deorflinger, of the United States Council of Bishops, a Roman Catholic organization. "My moral rule of thumb is that if we don't know, we shouldn't destroy them."

Feinstein and Hatch back a bill sponsored by Massachusetts Democrat Edward Kennedy that would allow so-called "therapeutic cloning" -- in which no embryo is implanted into a woman's womb -- but ban reproductive cloning aimed at making a baby.

The House has already passed a bill that would ban all human cloning. Kansas Republican Sen. Sam Brownback has introduced a similar bill in the Senate with 20 co-sponsors.

Senate Majority Leader Tom Daschle has said he wants to bring the issue to a vote before the session ends in the spring, and others are keen for a vote.

"I think what is important is that we listen to all the arguments and fashion a bill that bans reproductive cloning and allows somatic cell nuclear transfer for therapeutic purposes," Feinstein said in an interview.

One possible compromise under discussion is similar to one already reached regarding stem cell research -- allowing private companies to do as they please, while restricting federal funding of such research.

Moves are also underway to do away with the use of the word "cloning" when talking about non-reproductive research.

"I think 'cloning' is a lousy name for it," Hatch said.

Officially, the technique is known as "somatic cell nuclear transfer." To make a clone, or to make the batch of cells that embryonic stem cells can be taken from, the nucleus is taken out of a woman's egg, or the egg of a female animal. It is replaced with the nucleus of an adult cell. The egg is reprogrammed and starts growing as if it had been fertilized.

Some leading scientists suggest the term "nuclear transplantation" instead of "therapeutic cloning," which they say is misleading. But opponents of cloning accuse the scientists of trying to pull a semantic fast one.

"An attempt is being made to give it a different name but it is still the same thing we are talking about," said Rep. Dave Weldon, a Florida Republican.

Weldon and others say research using adult stem cells -- which can be found in the bone marrow and in some tissues -- offer the same promise as the controversial embryonic stem cells.

Scientists disagree.

"I don't believe that adult stem cell research can replicate all areas of research using somatic cell nuclear transfer," Alta Charo, a professor of law and bioethics at the University of Wisconsin, said in an interview.