Washington Editor

WASHINGTON The lead candidate to run the National Institutes of Health reportedly shares President Bush’s view that both reproductive and therapeutic cloning should be banned.

This week, Bush is expected to nominate Elias Zerhouni, 50, executive vice dean of Johns Hopkins School of Medicine in Baltimore, to serve as director of the Bethesda, Md.-based NIH.

The buzz around Washington indicates that Zerhouni backs a bill introduced by Sen. Sam Brownback (R-Kan.) calling for a ban on all types of cloning.

Any movement to ban all cloning could hinder research scientists and drug companies looking toward therapeutic cloning techniques as a means of developing treatments for Alzheimer’s, Parkinson’s, spinal cord injury, diabetes and other diseases.

In response to the rumors, Carl Feldbaum, president of the Washington-based Biotechnology Industry Organization, told BioWorld Today, “We don’t know [Zerhouni]. He seems to have excellent credentials and we are going to get to know him if in fact he’s nominated. We’ll make a decision based on what we learn we certainly have an open mind.”

Feldbaum continued, saying, “I frankly don’t know what he thinks about stem cell research. In any case, we do not intend to apply any litmus test.”

Sen. Bill Frist (R-Tenn.) released a prepared statement regarding the Zerhouni appointment that said, “We’ve been rapidly increasing funding for NIH in fact, doubling it over the past five years and a strong and effective director is important to ensuring the best progress at NIH. In particular, Dr. Zerhouni’s extensive work on stem cell research at Johns Hopkins indicates a real commitment to this important area, as well as other biomedical research.”

Bush’s $2.13 trillion national budget for fiscal year 2003 includes $27.335 billion for the NIH, the employer of 15,000 people. The proposal represents an increase of $3.902 billion, or 16.7 percent, over fiscal 2002. A month after taking office last year, Bush stood behind initiatives of the previous administration to double the NIH’s fiscal year 1998 appropriation level in five years. (See BioWorld Today, March 1, 2001, and Feb. 6, 2002.)

Debate On Cloning Expected In Weeks

If Zerhouni makes it through Senate confirmations and becomes the top man at the NIH, his opinion and beliefs on therapeutic and human cloning will become increasingly important. In particular, as head of the NIH, Zerhouni would control million of dollars in funding that could be spent on cloning and stem cell research.

The Senate is expected to debate cloning in late March or early April.

Sen. Brownback’s drive to make criminals out of scientists engaged in therapeutic cloning is the most threatening to the biotechnology industry.

“Criminalizing therapeutic cloning and treatments based on the technology, as Sen. Sam Brownback proposes, would move the research and its benefits overseas and out of reach to Americans,” Feldbaum said in a prepared statement. “We hope that the senators who supported stem cell research in 2001 but are under pressure from well-funded research opponents will not succumb to that pressure. We urge them to support life-saving research and reject the Brownback bill [S1899].”

In his testimony before the Senate Health, Education, Pensions and Labor Committee, Christopher Reeve, the paralyzed actor who leads the Coalition for the Advancement of Medical Research, said, “Any powerful new technology comes with the potential for abuse. But when we decide that the benefit to society is worth the risk, we take every possible precaution and go forward.”

Like BIO, Reeve also opposes the Brownback bill. The House version (HR2505), introduced by Rep. Dave Weldon (R-Fla.), passed last summer. (See BioWorld Today, Aug. 6, 2001.)

Speaking in the same hearing as Reeve, Sen. Arlen Specter (R-Pa.) described HR2505 as “broad.”

“All of us abhor human reproductive cloning and agree that it should be banned,” he said. “If the scientists’ theories are accurate, human embryonic stem cells, or tissues derived from them, could be transplanted to any part of the body to replace tissue that has been damaged by disease, injury or aging. It is this remarkable adaptability that leads scientists to believe that one day stem cells could be the basis for an entire field of regenerative medicine.

“Scientists will never be able to explore the full potential of stem cells if legislation like HR2505 is enacted into law,” Specter said.

Specter, along with Sens. Tom Harkin (D-Iowa), Barbara Boxer (D-Calif.) and Harry Reid (D-Calif.), introduced legislation (S1893) that provides criminal and civil penalties for any person who performs or attempts to perform human cloning.