By Lisa Seachrist

Washington Editor

WASHINGTON — The House Commerce Health and Environment Subcommittee took up the human cloning debate the day after the Senate's refusal to rush ahead with a cloning ban.

The discussion, however, boiled down to a rehash of the contentious human embryo research debate: whether the process of somatic cell nuclear transfer into an enucleated egg created an embryo; and should Congress ban that type of research.

"During the 17 years I have served in this body, Congress has rarely addressed an issue as important as the one we will discuss today," House Commerce Committee Chairman Tom Bliley (R-Va.) said in opening remarks. "The issue of human cloning is about the wonder of science. And it is about the possibility of new medical therapies. But most of all, the issue of human cloning is fundamentally and undeniably about life."

The subcommittee proceeded to hear from Sen. Bill Frist (R-Tenn.), cosponsor of a Senate cloning bill, and Rep. Vernon Ehlers (R-Mich.), sponsor of two pieces of cloning legislation in the House. All the bills ban using somatic cell nuclear transfer to clone human embryos, whether or not they are implanted into a woman.

"It does not require a pro-life or pro-choice perspective to agree that human embryos are a developing form of human life and deserve, at the very least, serious moral consideration," Frist said. "The Feinstein-Kennedy bill in the Senate bans human cloning only in that it forbids implantation of the cloned human embryo into a woman's uterus. It would permit the unlimited creation of those embryos for experimental purposes, and then essentially includes a federal mandate that those embryos would be destroyed."

Frist was supported in his claim by Roman Catholic, Protestant and Jewish representatives. While Rabbi Barry Freundel of the Georgetown Synagogue, in Washington, said cloning a human being is not necessarily immoral or unethical, he agreed with his Christian colleagues, who argued that research on embryos is unethical.

"Once a fetus has been created, it has the same status as one that has been created normally," Freundel said. "We wouldn't rip the fetus out of a woman's womb and experiment on it."

Rep. Greg Ganske (R-Iowa), however, questioned the assertion that somatic cell nuclear transfer indeed creates an embryo. Ganske, a physician who treated burn patients before joining Congress, noted that every cell in the body with the exception of gametes and red blood cells contains the full component of DNA and as such can be reprogrammed to divide.

"In culture dishes, these cells created from somatic cell nuclear transfer would begin to divide," Ganske said. "But that doesn't mean that they would have to develop into a fetus. The addition of growth factors could ensure that the cells develop into specialized tissues, not a person."

Michael West, founder and chairmen of Origen Therapeutics, in South San Francisco, noted the work his company did with primordial stem cells was aimed at doing just that, creating cardiac muscle for ailing hearts, nerve cells for people suffering Alzheimer's disease, and potentially full-thickness skin.

"With cardiac tissue we can't find a stem cell that will become cardiac muscle; it doesn't exist," said West, who was testifying for the Biotechnology Industry Organization (BIO). "We must use primordial stem cells."

Ganske said he could envision a day when a skin cell could be completely reprogrammed to become totipotent and asked the panelists, "If we can create a stem cell from any cell in the body, are we going to call that an embryo?"

"That's a good question," West said. "With nuclear reprogramming it is not clear that we are creating something with the potential to become a life. When mouse primordial stem cells are transplanted into a mouse uterus, it doesn't form an animal. We need to take the time to figure it out."

In the meantime, West pointed out that the FDA has asserted its authority, giving legislators the breathing room they will need to craft legislation if that is needed. If a cloning ban is enacted, BIO has said it would prefer a bill similar to that introduced by Sens. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.) and Edward Kennedy (D-Mass.).

"We need to keep our eye on the ball here," said Gillian Woollett, assistant vice president of biotechnology at the Pharmaceutical Research and Manufacturers of America. "I fear that biomedical advances will not be achieved because we are talking about banning a technology that happened to be useful in the cloning of one sheep. The FDA offers us an intermediary step so that we don't need to act in haste." *