By Kim Coghill

Washington Editor

WASHINGTON ¿ If a growing consensus on Capitol Hill has its way, scientists and religious-based organizations seeking to clone humans will have to leave the U.S. to pursue the research.

But the concern among mainstream scientists is quickly becoming whether Congress, in its quest to prevent reproduction of the same person, will put a stop to important research by banning therapeutic cloning.

Sen. Sam Brownback (R-Kan.) Wednesday chaired a cloning hearing of the Senate Commerce Subcommittee on Science, Technology and Space. Brownback and Rep. Dave Weldon (R-Fla.) last week introduced legislation that bans cloning, and carries penalties of up to $1 million, with jail terms of up to 10 years for violators.

The legislation, ¿Human Cloning Prohibition Act of 2001,¿ bans cloning, which it defines as the asexual reproduction of a new human organism that is genetically identical to another human being. It is currently accomplished by a technique called somatic cell nuclear transfer technology (the technique used to produce Dolly, the sheep). This is accomplished by introducing the nuclear material of a human somatic cell into an egg whose own nucleus has been removed or inactivated.

In his testimony to the subcommittee Wednesday, Carl Feldbaum, president of the Washington-based Biotechnology Industry Organization, said BIO opposes human reproductive cloning, but supports cloning of specific human cells, genes and other tissues that do not and cannot lead to a cloned human being.

After the hearing, Feldbaum said Brownback approached him seeking assistance with his legislation, which likely could not be enacted in its present form.

¿[The bill] goes beyond reproductive cloning and the implantation of a cloned human embryo into stem cell research and that clear line, we have drawn in the sand,¿ Feldbaum said.

If therapeutic cloning were banned, Feldbaum told BioWorld Today, ¿I think it would be extremely damaging to a promising new field of regenerative medicine, just when it is getting going in a significant way, and I made those points very seriously to Sen. Brownback.¿

The cloning issue became front page news in recent months when Rael, a scientist and leader of the religious Raelian Movement, and his colleague Brigitte Boiseelier, visiting assistant professor of chemistry at Hamilton College in Clinton, N.Y., said they intend to clone a human. (See BioWorld Today, April 29, 2001.)

Rael¿s religious movement believes life on earth was created scientifically in laboratories by extraterrestials. Rael¿s human cloning company, CLONAID, is based in the Bahamas.

Two others, Panos Zavos of the Andrology Institute of America in Lexington, Ky., and Severino Antinori, a fertility doctor in Rome, have said they will clone a human by the end of the year. Their goal is to help childless couples.

In a press conference last week, Brownback and Weldon said their bill bans what they call ¿destructive cloning,¿ that is, embryos cloned for research purposes. Sen. Ben Nighthorse Campbell (R-Colo.) introduced a bill in early April that proposes only banning human reproductive cloning.

Feldbaum in February sent a letter to Bush urging the president to extend the voluntary moratorium on human reproductive cloning instituted in 1997. Federal funding of human cloning was banned by executive order, for five years, just after the news of Dolly¿s cloning in Scotland in 1997.

President Bush reportedly opposes human cloning, and will work with Congress to pass a bill banning such science.

Feldbaum told the subcommittee, ¿As the current Congress pursues legislative prohibitions on human reproductive cloning, we urge both caution and a distinction between reproductive and therapeutic cloning. We all agree that given the current safety and social factors, human reproductive cloning is repugnant. However, it is critical that in our enthusiasm to prevent reproductive cloning, we do not ban vital research turning wholly legitimate biomedical researchers into outlaws ¿ thus squelching the hope of relief for millions of suffering individuals.¿

Therapeutic cloning techniques are central to the production of breakthrough medicines, diagnostics and vaccines to treat Alzheimer¿s disease, diabetes, Parkinson¿s disease, heart attacks, various cancers and hundreds of other genetic diseases, supporters point out. The method could also produce replacement skin, cartilage and bone tissue for burn and accident victims and provide ways to regenerate retinal and spinal cord tissue.

¿Therapeutic cloning cannot produce a whole human being,¿ Feldbaum said. ¿This work should be allowed to move forward.¿

If a ban passes here, the U.S. will join the ranks of Ireland, Israel, Spain and Italy as countries that put a stop to cloning. Korea, Canada, New Zealand, Russia and Britain are calling for bans.

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