By Lisa Seachrist
WASHINGTON — When cloning first captured the headlines last year the discussion jumped immediately from one cloned sheep to the prospect of cloning human beings.
While many maintained that the technical difficulties of cloning a human being placed such an attempt far in the future, others argued that it was only a matter of time before someone made the attempt.
It appears that time has come.
Less than a year after the sheep-clone Dolly was introduced to the world by a group of Scottish scientists, a Chicago physicist has said he is in the process of gathering a team of scientists who will make that first attempt.
G. Richard Seed originally announced his intentions at a symposium on reproductive technologies Dec. 5 in Chicago and reiterated his intentions to members of the media this week, arguing that for infertile couples it may be unethical to deny them cloning as an option, and that he intends to clone a human being.
In response to Seed's announcement, White House Press Secretary Mike McCurry told reporters at his daily briefing the administration opposes any such attempts, noting the National Bioethics Advisory Commission (NBAC) determined in June 1997 that cloning a human being would provide unacceptable safety risks and would raise substantial moral dilemmas.
FDA May Have Cloning Jurisdiction
"A panel of very distinguished people has been giving the United States government and the president advice on bioethical issues," McCurry said. "And that group at the time said that professional and scientific societies should make it very clear that any attempt to [clone a human being] would be an irresponsible, unethical and unprofessional act. I think that the scientific community ought to make it clear to Dr. Seed."
McCurry went on to say the FDA, which regulates genetic cell therapies, believes that such experimentation may fall under its regulatory jurisdiction. Nevertheless, McCurry noted Seed's plan makes a more urgent case for moving ahead with legislation that would ban human cloning.
In response to Seed's announcement, industry organizations have expressed incredulity.
Jeff Trewhitt, spokesman for the Pharmaceutical Research and Manufacturers of America (PhRMA), called the proposal "bizarre" and noted that PhRMA is in full support of a ban on cloning human beings as long as it protects legitimate research.
Carl Feldbaum, president of the Biotechnology Industry Organization (BIO), pointed out that in addition to the obvious moral and ethical questions that cloning a human being raises, safety issues make such an action foolhardy and inappropriate.
"It is plainly inappropriate to seek to apply this technique to human beings," Feldbaum said. "The experience with Dolly, in which there were 276 unsuccessful attempts before an apparently healthy sheep was born, points to the experimental nature of this technique to human beings."
Even so, the publicity that cloning engendered led Feldbaum to believe that "some irresponsible radical scientist would very soon take it as a personal challenge."
"I actually expected this sooner," Feldbaum said. "Dr. Seed's statements have been consciously provocative and will likely generate further legislative activity. Where not drafted properly, it could endanger legitimate genetic research."
Currently, Rep. Vernon Ehlers (R-Mich.) has proposed cloning legislation in the House, and further legislation is likely to crop up. Feldbaum noted that the greatest challenge for BIO will be keeping track of state cloning bans which could inadvertently stymie research.
"We have our work cut out for us," Feldbaum said. "Fortunately, we happen to be prepared." *