Guest column: Therapeutic cloning is life-or-death matter for millions
June 27, 2002

In the next few weeks, the United States Senate may vote on whether to outlaw therapeutic cloning. Tennessee Sen. Bill Frist already has made up his mind in support of a ban, while Fred Thompson, the state's other senator, is undecided.

I'm sure Thompson has already heard a lot of complicated, technical arguments about science and theology. For me, however, the issue is as basic as the air I breathe: Will the Senate try to help my family fight an incurable medical condition that is attacking my lungs?

Guest columnist Karen Edwards is a retired medical assistant in Memphis who was diagnosed with alpha1-antitrypsin deficiency in 1996.
Or will it slam the laboratory door on me, stopping research that offers me hope?

Six years ago, I was diagnosed with alpha1-antitrypsin deficiency, a genetic disorder that can cause liver and lung disease in children and adults. My alpha1 is attacking my lungs. My brother died of the disease, and there is no cure. But there is hope, and that's why therapeutic cloning is so important.

Many people think "cloning" refers only to reproductive cloning, the use of cloning technology to create a baby. There are many who oppose that type of cloning, myself included. But therapeutic cloning - or somatic cell nuclear transfer technology (SCNT) as scientists call it - is fundamentally different.

In SCNT, scientists remove the nucleus from an egg cell and replace it with material from the nucleus of a normal body cell. Then they stimulate this cell to begin dividing. This clump of dividing cells never leaves the lab. The egg never begins to develop into a human being. Instead, the resulting cells become a source of stem cells that can be used to treat life threatening medical conditions.

One of the great advantages of SCNT for people with alpha1 lung disease is that it would allow their own genetic material to be used to develop advanced stem cell therapies. These therapies, including stem cell transplants, would be used to repair the damaged lung tissue that is taking a greater and greater toll on my ability to breathe. Moreover, SCNT would produce cells that are identical to my original cells. As a result, my immune system would not reject the transplanted cells.

Clearly, I've got a personal interest in this issue. Every breath I take reminds me of it. But one of the things that makes therapeutic cloning so exciting is that it could be used not just for the 100,000 people with alpha1. It might also help to treat the wide range of diseases and conditions that are caused by damage to cells and tissue: Alzheimer, diabetes, heart disease, various cancers, and even paralysis resulting from spinal cord injury.

In fact, it is estimated that SCNT could bring new hope to the nearly 100 million Americans who are fighting serious, incurable medical conditions.

Forty Nobel laureates recently came out strongly in support of SCNT, and against a ban. Almost every leading scientist and medical researcher agrees. That's another reason I'm so hopeful about therapeutic cloning.

Months ago, Sen. Sam Brownback (R-Kan.) introduced a bill, endorsed by Frist, to ban therapeutic cloning. Today, because of widespread opposition from patient advocates, scientists and a broad coalition of liberals and conservatives, it's unclear when a ban might come to a vote.

But Brownback has threatened to add his proposal to unrelated bills, and has spoken of a "moratorium" on therapeutic cloning.

Either a ban or a moratorium would stop SCNT dead in its tracks, and at the very least postpone the medical research that offers me hope. Alpha1 is progressive. I can't afford to wait while politicians wrangle. Alpa1 causes liver disease in children. They can't afford delay in the search for new treatments, either.

When our senators take up therapeutic cloning, I hope they listen to people with diseases, not people with an ideological agenda. I hope they consult the Nobel Prize winners who support SCNT. I hope they try to imagine what it feels like to breathe with diseased lungs. If they do, I think they would support, not ban or delay, SCNT.

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