By Kim Coghill

Washington Editor

WASHINGTON - The Biotechnology Industry Organization (BIO) sent a letter to President George W. Bush asking him to continue support of the current voluntary moratorium on cloning human beings in the United States.

The moratorium was implemented in March 1997 as an immediate response to concerns raised by the cloning of a sheep, named Dolly, from genetic material of an adult cell. Mice and cows also have been cloned, but suggestions of cloning humans have been met by outrage within the scientific community and in political and religious circles around the world, including the Vatican.

The cloning debate re-entered the news in late January when an international group of reproductive experts announced plans to launch an effort to clone humans in order to provide children to infertile couples. Panayiotis Zavos, of the Andrology Institute of America and the Kentucky Center for Reproductive Medicine and In Virto Fertilization in Lexington, Ky., said he and another scientist, Severino Antinori, likely will have a viable embryo available for implantation in a woman's uterus within 18 months.

In its letter to Bush, BIO said that it supports cloning of specific human cells, genes and other tissues that do not and cannot lead to a cloned human being.

The current moratorium on cloning humans should remain until the nation has had time to fully explore the impact of such cloning, the letter said. Otherwise, there is a risk of public backlash against responsible biotechnology research that is making progress daily in developing new treatments and cures for devastating and intractable diseases.