By Kim Coghill

Washington Editor

WASHINGTON ¿ Some members of a House subcommittee Wednesday seemed baffled that the Bush administration would even consider blocking advancements in science by prohibiting therapeutic or research cloning.

And it¿s not so much that the Republican administration opposes such research, but it¿s the reasons they oppose it that bother some politicians.

Claude Allen, deputy secretary for the Department of Health and Human Services, told the subcommittee that Bush and HHS Secretary Tommy Thompson oppose therapeutic cloning because it could lead to misuse. The administration also believes there are therapies either on the market or in the research phase that could achieve the same results that scientists hope to gain through therapeutic cloning research.

Allen fielded questions from the Heath Subcommittee of the U.S. House Committee on Energy and Commerce, which heard testimony on the merits of two cloning bills: one that permits therapeutic cloning (HR2172), and one that bans it (HR1644).

Many scientists believe that therapeutic cloning techniques are central to the production of breakthrough medicines, diagnostics and vaccines to treat Alzheimer¿s, diabetes, Parkinson¿s, heart attack, various cancers and many other genetic diseases. Therapeutic cloning could also produce replacement skin, cartilage and bone tissue for burn and accident victims and help to regenerate retinal and spinal cord tissue, scientists said. However, such cloning techniques cannot produce a whole human being.

And although there are plenty of different opinions on therapeutic cloning, nearly everyone seems to agree that human cloning should be banned.

¿Some argue to prohibit genetic cell replication research because it might, in the wrong hands, be turned into reproductive cloning. I cannot support this argument,¿ said Rep. Henry Waxman (D-Calif.). ¿Such a prohibition is no more reasonable than to prohibit all clinical trials because researchers might give overdoses deliberately. It is as much overreaching as prohibiting all organ transplant studies because an unscrupulous person might buy or sell organs for profit. All research can be misused. That¿s why we regulate it.¿

The hearing Wednesday follows a much-publicized March hearing when Rael, a religious leader who believes that life on earth was created scientifically in laboratories by extraterrestrials, testified to his beliefs and support of cloning. Rael¿s company, CLONAID, of the Bahamas, is attempting to clone the first American baby. (See BioWorld Today, March 29, 2001.)

¿We oppose the use of human somatic cell nuclear transfer cloning techniques either to assist human reproduction or to develop cell- or tissue-based therapies,¿ Allen told the subcommittee. ¿At the same time, we strongly support other approaches to development of these therapies, such as research with genes, cells or tissues from humans or animals, consistent with current law.¿

Rep. James Greenwood (R-Pa.), who authored HR2172, asked Allen if the Bush administration had sought the advice of biotechnology experts, to include Washington-based Biotechnology Industry Organization (BIO), before forming its opinion.

Allen, who has been on the job for two weeks, responded that he could not give a detailed list of every scientist with whom the president discussed the issue, but he was sure the list went beyond the National Institutes of Health and other in-house advisers.

But Rep. Peter Deutsch (D-Fla.), who supports Greenwood¿s bill, pointed out that if Congress bans therapeutic cloning in the United States, ¿biotech companies will move overseas to develop their products. Do we then ban the products they develop as a result of cloning?¿

Allen didn¿t commit as to whether the administration would seek to ban such products, but he did say ¿any product imported would be subjected to the same protocol that other drugs are subjected to.¿

When asked which of the two bills the administration supports, Allen said neither has been endorsed. However, he said the administration likely will lean toward HR1644, authored by Dave Weldon (R-Fla.) and Bart Stupak (D-Mich.).

However, Allen said some of the language in the Weldon-Stupak bill concerns the administration, particularly as it relates to banning products derived from cloning in overseas clinics.

Stupak said HR1644 is an ethical bill and ¿we are not trying to handcuff the biotech industry. We think therapeutic cloning will happen, but we want scientists to be sure of the results before we approve it. We have a provision in the bill that would allow scientists to come back to us when they have a case for therapeutic cloning.¿

Thomas Okarma, president and CEO of Menlo Park, Calif.-based Geron Corp., who testified on behalf of BIO, said, ¿It is critical that in our enthusiasm to prevent reproductive cloning that we not ban vital research turning wholly legitimate biomedical researchers into outlaws, and thus squelching the hope of relief for millions of suffering individuals.¿

Stupak, Rep. Cliff Stearns (R-Fla.) and Rep. Joseph Pitts (R-Pa.) spoke in opposition to therapeutic cloning. Waxman, Greenwood and Deutsch spoke in favor of it, and other members said they were open-minded on the subject or waived their opening statements. There are 33 members on the subcommittee and 17 were present.

The House Judiciary Committee¿s Subcommittee on Crime Tuesday heard testimony on a human cloning ban.

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