A Member's View of Cloning Research
by Bill Johnson
There are two types of human cloning research. One type is therapeutic cloning, also known as Somatic Cell Nuclear Transplant (SCNT), which has potential to produce embryonic stem cells (ESC) that might prove useful in producing a variety of tissue cells to be used in curing diseased or injured patients. The second type is reproductive cloning research, which is an effort to actually clone another human being.
It seems that a vast majority of people agree that research into reproductive cloning should also be banned, so that is not the issue here. The Congress is currently considering the Brownback-Landrieu bill (S-1899), which, if passed, will criminalize all types of human cloning research. But a debate has been raging about whether research into SCNT should be banned since Brownback's bill criminalizes both types of research.
Most who support Brownback's bill do so on ethical grounds. They believe any cloning, whether to produce ESC or to produce another human being, is morally wrong. They believe that a blastocyte (very early stage embryo consisting of 150 or so stem cells) should be treated as a human being, so are against its creation and then destruction for therapeutic purposes. This is the stance President Bush has taken.
This debate has created some very strange bedfellows. One of the most conservative and pro-life members of congress, Senator Orrin Hatch (R-Utah), and former republican President Gerald Ford have teamed up with liberals like Senator Ted Kennedy (D-Mass) and Senator Tom Daschle (D-SD) in opposing the bill. Senator Hatch has said he does not believe cells in a petri dish are human beings and that part of his pro-life stance is making life better for the living. (3)
James Kelly is a spinal cord injured (SCI) person and is an active member of the Care/Cure forum. He has done investigations into various avenues of SCI research. Mr. Kelly has declared his support of Brownback's bill and surprised Care/Cure forum members by posting an announcement that he was present at the Rose Garden ceremony when President Bush endorsed the bill on April 10, 2002. (1) Mr. Kelly was also invited by the National Academy of Sciences to join a debate in New York that was held on May, 20, 2002. Participating in that debate were Christopher Reeve and one pro-SCNT scientist and Mr. Kelly along with one anti-SCNT scientist.(2)
Mr. Kelly appears to have gained the attention and support of conservative groups such as American's To Ban Cloning. But Mr. Kelly's reasons for supporting the Brownback bill seem to be unusual; perhaps that is why he has caught the attention of groups that base their opposition practically entirely on moral grounds. Mr. Kelly claims he is not a member of an organized religion and focuses his vehement arguments of support for Brownback on the premise that research into SCNT will drain research money from other avenues that he believes have more potential. He uses abstracts of scientific papers, news clippings, and Care/Cure forum discussions to footnote his written statements. (2)
Mr. Kelly also laces his writings about SCNT with innuendoes of conspiracy. He believes scientists are acting immorally if they desire to do SCNT research or if they encourage others to support the research. He believes that scientists are just after research dollars for job security and have no real desires to find cures. For example, in a written briefing for Americans to Ban Cloning, Mr. Kelly states:
"I don't like being used. I think it's highly immoral for researchers to encourage the sick, crippled, and dying to cut their own throats by supporting cloning." (2)
In a posting on the Cure forum, Kelly announced that he had participated in the New York debate and ended his announcement with another conspiracy innuendo:
"But can't you see that while people like Chris Reeve and M.J. Fox bring in tens of millions (or more) to the research industry annually, they're even more important as political tools. And like it or not, the same is true of you and me! CR and MJF are only poster-children who represent entire disabled populations, or in other words, us! Simply put, the research industry can't afford to let them be cured. They, like you, are being misled and ruthlessly used." (1)
I agree with some of Mr. Kelly's points, although not nearly to the same degree of certainty that he believes in them. But I have trouble with his conspiracy theories. Are researchers interested in SCNT really out only for the money? Is there really a conspiracy by the "research industry" to keep Christopher Reeve in his chair and let Michel J. Fox die? Is the press involved in this conspiracy as Mr. Kelly also has insinuated? Will allowing SCNT research really drain money away from researching other therapies as Mr. Kelly maintains? Let's do a closer examination of a few of Mr. Kelly's points.
As Mr. Kelly states, there are a growing number of non-stem cell therapies in SCI research that we all know about and have discussed on these forums. Some of these, like IN-1, were being studied before ESC or adult stem cells (ASC) were even discovered. Most of these therapies are well along in development and I agree with Mr. Kelly that these therapies should be pursued and that they will probably be available before stem cell based therapy. But what stem cell therapy might be able to do for us that none of these others therapies can do is replace our damaged neurons (if we have any) and make any cure much more complete. This is a tremendously exciting possibility and Mr. Kelly has stated it might be accomplished sooner with ASC than with ESC. I tend to agree with this point although the jury is still out.
Does that mean we should abandon all ESC work in favor of ASC research? No, I don't think so. Research into each is still very much in its infancy. The knowledge learned from studying ESC and ASC should be transferable and somewhat interchangeable with each. I do not believe scientists have arrived at the point that they should simply abandon ESC research in favor of ASC research or vice-versa. It may very well be found that ESC will produce cures for some diseases and ASC will produce cures for others. Continued study of both should produce discoveries faster than studying just one or the other. SCNT research might provide a way of producing better ESC lines for research, although such research would have to be funded privately because of President Bush's August 9, 2001 ruling. And since SCNT research might lead to ways of producing ESC that are genetically identical to a patients own cells, I think that possibility should also be explored. Mr. Kelly is against this research for several reasons.
Reason 1. There are too many difficult hurdles to overcome
Mr. Kelly has repeatedly pointed out there are hurdles to overcome in SCNT research and I do not disagree with that, either. But there are hurdles to overcome in every field of research; that is the very nature of research. But just because there are hurdles to overcome does that mean we should not make an attempt? Shall we just stop research because it looks too hard or impossible? The naysayers told Dr. Wise Young not to go into SCI research because there were insurmountable hurdles and that it was impossible to cure SCI. Yet, Dr. Young went into the field anyway and has been jumping over hurdles his whole research career. Dr. Martin Schwab started his work on IN-1 in mice well over ten years ago. It took him about five years just to get a humanized IN-1 version. But he made the attempt and began overcoming the hurdles one by one. Now many are hoping IN-1 will soon be in clinical trials. Even if IN-1 is never used as a therapy, so much has been learned from Dr. Schwab's work that he has helped remove the hurdles for other therapies now in development. Likewise for Dr. Young. SCNT research has the potential to do the same, even if it is never used directly as a therapy itself.
Reason 2. It will take too long.
Mr. Kelly has repeatedly said that beneficial results from SCNT are too far into the future. I would remind Mr. Kelly that the war on cancer was declared in 1970. Now, 32 years later, cancer has still not been completely conquered. Tens of thousands of people die of cancer annually. Does that mean we made a mistake in starting? Should we have said back in 1970 that success will lie too far into the future to even begin? What kind of logic is that? Progress has been slow but progress has been made step by step and year by year. Certainly thousands if not millions of people are now alive who would be dead without cancer research. No one should expect immediate results from SCNT research. It will likely not be a magic bullet for every disease just as there is no magic bullet as yet for every form of cancer. It will take many years of research to get results and those results may come only in small increments unless scientists become very lucky.
Reason 3. There already are "successful treatments" for many disorders
Mr. Kelly has insisted there are successful treatments for many disorders and has presented a long list of abstracts in a briefing to "prove" his point. One condition he lists as being successfully treated is Parkinson's. Mr. Kelly's "treatment" for Parkinson's is a phase I clinical trial of only one patient. That patient showed reduced symptoms. There are no "successful treatments" for Parkinson's or most if not all of the long list of conditions Mr. Kelly presented in his brief. An abstract of an experiment or news clipping about a phase one clinical trial is not a "successful treatment." All scientists know this and Mr. Kelly should have chosen his words more carefully and called them what they are, "encouraging experiments that seem to indicate much larger trials should be initiated." But what does Mr. Kelly do? He tells the public there are "successful treatments" for a multitude of disorders when in fact there are no treatments available at all - at least not the ones he is talking about. And this misrepresentation is by a man that the press is promoting as a "lay expert" but who has refused to list his credentials at the request of forum members. And while Mr. Kelly is misleading the public, he has the audacity to scold his debate adversaries about misleading the public! Is it any wonder the public is confused on these issues when there is so much hyperbole on both sides?
Reason 4. It will drain money from other research areas like SCI
SCNT is legal today and has been for many years. Has it, up to now, taken money away from other research projects? Since 1995, there has been a law against federal funding of any sort of human cloning research so the NIH has not spent a dime of its fiscal 2002 budget of $23 billion on SCNT research. Mr. Kelly knows about this law but continually fails to acknowledge it while spreading fears that the NIH will abandon the funding of other research projects to start funding cloning research.
Now survey the private companies. How many have spent money on SCNT research? I know of only two very small companies that have spent anything at all, Advanced Cell Technologies (ACT) and Geron. But Geron has abandoned SCNT research so ACT is the only American company known to be active in the SCNT field. (4)
Yet, Kelly has implied that companies will abandon their own research projects and start spending money on SCNT research if it is not banned. Will they really? Private enterprise could have been spending lavishly on cloning all this time and could be spending today. But they havenât been and probably won't in the near future. Why? Because businesses are in business to make profits in the foreseeable future, they will not abandon promising research projects without good reason, write off their investments, and start mindlessly doing basic research into SCNT with their investorâs money.
The economic climate is also miserable. Since the dot com bust, venture capitalists are putting a lot more strings on their money and watching it closer. 9-11 and the war on terrorism has also eroded investor confidence. Then the Enron-Anderson debacle came along to add to investor skepticism. Biotech stocks are at a three-year low. Basically, investors are very reluctant and scared to invest in biotech. Money is hard to get unless biotech companies have a very good business plan and if a company can get it, terms are more stringent than ever.(5) In the year 2000, $92 billion of venture capital was invested in companies. In 2001, only $32 billion was invested.(6).
Stir into that economic malaise the Brownback bill. The political climate is horrible for any branch of biotech dealing with cloning or ESC. First, President Bush severely restricted rapid progress in ESC research by limiting the federal funding of research to only existing ESC lines as of August 9, 2002. And those who wanted to ban all ESC research are not happy with that decision. Now the debate on Brownback's bill is having a chilling effect on SCNT research and maybe all of biotech research. This makes investors pause, even if the bill doesn't pass this year. Who will invest in SCNT knowing that next year Mr. Brownback or other religious conservatives or people like James Kelly might be back trying to pass a similar bill that will put you out of business and probably send you into bankruptcy? Today SCNT is banned, tomorrow it might be ESC, and then it might be ASC then it might be xenotransplants. Once one area of research is banned, who knows what will be next? What area of biotech does an investor invest in that is safe from people like Mr. Brownback or Mr. Kelly? This kind of stuff weighs heavily on the biotech markets and the price of capital.
So Mr. Kelly's arguments about funding dilution are pure hype. Even if the Brownback bill is defeated there will likely have to be a big change in the political climate before U.S. companies interested in SCNT are able to attract large amounts of funding. That change may take many years if it comes at all. The problem is not that money is waiting to be poured into SCNT research, as Mr. Kelly would like everyone to believe. The problem is that money is fleeing SCNT research given the economic and uncertain political climate.
Though Mr. Kelly's arguments are not logical, they have been effective. Even some members of this forum have picked up on Mr. Kelly's fear mongering and re-expressed his fear that SCI research funding will be diluted if SCNT is allowed. And the key word here is FEAR. People are emotional and I believe Kelly knows if he can scare them, he can be more effective. But he is using deception to instill fear...fear of losing funding and fear of being victimized by a conspiracy. One can drive trucks through the holes in his arguments but it is hard, by logic, to calm the fears he has instilled in people through hype and misrepresentations.
But my biggest objections to Kelly's arguments lie in the fundamentals of capitalism, which is an economic system that allows private enterprise to make decisions about when, where and how to produce goods and services and deliver them to the people. The U.S. and its people have prospered because of capitalism. Now along comes Mr. Kelly who wants to put scientists in jail if they do SCNT research because he believes there are hurdles to overcome, it will take too long, or will draw money from areas he feels are more promising. What if the Wright brothers had been jailed for spending their own money on flight research because the government thought automobiles were further developed and would become a better form of transportation so, therefore, automobile research is where investors should spend their money. We probably would not even have a 747 airliner today, or anything else that flies. Socialism is an economic system where the government makes the decisions on the products and services that a nation needs and decides how to manufacture and deliver them. Countries that have adopted Socialism have not been real successful, but it appears Mr. Kelly wants the U.S. government to socialize medical research decisions.
Brownback's bill, by just being introduced and debated, has certainly set SCNT research back by many years. In a sense, Mr. Brownback, Mr. Kelly and those that support Brownbackâs bill have gotten what they want, at least for the short term. They have slowed down SCNT research to a crawl. I just hope the bill is defeated so the door remains open just a crack so that those pioneers that have the guts to shoulder the risks can go forward with SCNT research if they so choose-- just as the Wright bothers were able to continue with their research. SCNT is not a field for the faint of heart. Neither was aviation before anyone had proven flight was possible.
The most recent news on the issue is that Brownback recognizes imminent defeat of his bill so is now proposing a moratorium on SCNT research.(7) This, in my opinion, is nothing more than a roundabout way of getting to the same objective. Everyone should contact their congressperson to defeat Brownbackâs moratorium proposal. A moratorium is essentially the same as a ban.
(4) Wall Street Journal, May 24, 2002, page A3
(5) BusinessWeek, May 27, 2002, page 82
(6) BusinessWeek, Feb. 11, 2002, page 64