While politicians in Washington haven't decided whether they should ban therapeutic cloning, scientists in California have forged ahead with a plan to establish a research institute that will use stem cell biology to study cancer and other diseases.
The debate surrounding therapeutic cloning - or research cloning - died down over the summer amid the mid-term elections and the threat of war with Iraq. But last week, the controversial issue started gaining steam again when Stanford University said it would spend a $12 million anonymous donation to help open a research facility where scientists will grow human embryonic stem cell lines for study purposes.
Opponents believe this type of research could lead to creating embryos for cloning purposes.
Stanford, a private university, has denied such charges and has appointed the renowned stem cell researcher and medical professor, Irving Weissman, to head the new facility.
Meanwhile, in Washington, the lame-duck session is essentially over and any bill that wasn't signed by the president has been dropped. That means Rep. Dave Weldon's (R-Fla.) bill that would criminalize all forms of cloning and made it through the House in a 265-162 vote, is no longer valid. (See BioWorld Today, Aug. 6, 2001, and Nov. 27, 2001.)
What's going to happen when the new Congress comes to town is anyone's guess.
"We always expect that the issue will be revisited, but exactly the nature or timing of that debate is not known and will depend on political events, scientific events and media coverage," said Sean Tipton, vice president of communications for the Coalition for the Advancement of Medical Research, a Washington-based stem cell research group.
And while Republicans control Washington, Tipton cautioned that therapeutic cloning is not a straight party issue. "You have to remember, you've got two powerful Republican senators, Arlen Specter [Pa.] and Orrin Hatch [Utah], who support this kind of research. I think we are essentially where we have been since about 1996, and that is, there is a desire to pass a prohibition on reproductive cloning, and that can be easily accomplished. But if the intent is to prohibit promising research, there's going to be an enormous battle."
On hearing the developments at Stanford, organizations on the other side, such as the Washington-based American Bioethics Advisory Commission, a project of the American Life League, released a statement saying congressional action to ban all human cloning is necessary.
Some type of congressional action is expected, according to Michael Werner, vice president for bioethics at the Washington-based Biotechnology Industry Organization.
Werner told BioWorld Today that he fully expects Sen. Sam Brownback (R-Kan.) and his supporters, including Louisiana Democrat Mary Landrieu, to return to Washington in 2003 ready to work on a total cloning ban. Furthermore, Werner believes Brownback will have President's Bush's support.
On the other side of the country, Lynn Pasahow, a partner with the law firm Fenwick & West in Palo Alto, Calif., told BioWorld Today that he believes a compromise is possible. "The administration's compromise on stem cell research is a long way from outlawing therapeutic cloning," he said. "I think the president got to that point of compromise because he recognized that his party, the country at large and certainly the scientific community believe that this kind of research should go forward," he said.
Pasahow is speaking of Bush's decision on Aug. 9, 2001, to allow limited federal funding for research on 72 stem cell lines that existed on that date.
So where does this leave Stanford?
According to Pasahow, if Bush bans therapeutic cloning, then Stanford obviously would comply.
At this point, though, no one is exactly positive about how the research will be conducted at Stanford.
Following a frenzy of media inquiries, Weissman released a statement saying the institute will decide whether it will use nuclear transfer (therapeutic cloning) or the process of transferring a nucleus into the cell of an existing stem cell line for its research.
"We want to establish stem cell lines in the best possible way," Weissman said in the statement. Until his group has studied both methods in mice, they won't know which way will work best in humans.
Regardless, Pasahow said Stanford's work is squarely within legislation signed in October by California Gov. Gray Davis authorizing human embryonic stem cell research, and offering to help pay for it with state money. (See BioWorld Today, Oct. 17, 2002.)
"This legislation is what California wants to happen," he said. "California is working hard and successfully to create an environment where important bioscience can be conducted, and this kind of research is extraordinarily promising for a whole lot of very sick people."