By Lisa Seachrist

Washington Editor

WASHINGTON — While lauding President Clinton's decision to declare a moratorium on research into cloning humans until the National Bioethics Advisory Commission (NBAC) weighs in at the end of May, the Biotechnology Industry Organization (BIO) urged Clinton to oppose hastily drafted legislation that could threaten biotechnology research.

In a letter delivered to the president on March 27, BIO recognizes the spiritual and ethical dilemmas raised by the sheep clone, Dolly, but warns that poorly thought out legislation could jeopardize important medical research.

"The board wanted to get on record as having similar concerns to the public," Carl Feldbaum, president of BIO, said. "But we also wanted to state very graphically the risks of bad legislation."

In the letter, BIO notes that Dolly "raises new prospects for which we are not so adequately prepared." And, BIO continues, "these new prospects challenge some of the most fundamental concepts we hold about ourselves as social and spiritual beings."

Nevertheless, the organization points out that cloning — the duplication of genes — is an essential tool in biotechnology. BIO goes on to say that the cloning of certain human tissues could produce replacement skin, cartilage and bone tissue for burn and accident victims as well as potentially produce cells for cancer therapy. In addition, research into cloning human cells could result in ways to regenerate diseased retinas and severed spinal cords.

"The good news about all of this is that legislators and people in general understand the value of biotech research and they don't want to put it in jeopardy," Feldbaum said. "We just want to make sure that no legitimate research is deterred in the process of creating laws to address human cloning."

BIO said it intends to circulate the letter to both houses of Congress, the NBAC as well as to state legislators in order to educate them about the need for a cautious approach to legislation. "Our position is 'Let's wait. Let's not jump ahead until we have heard from the president's bioethics commission,'" Feldbaum said.

Already three bills have been introduced in the 105th Congress to prohibit cloning human beings. In the Senate, Christopher Bond (R-Mont.) sponsored S. 368 stating that "no federal funds may be used for research with respect to the cloning of a human individual." Bond goes on to define the term cloning to mean "the replication of a human individual by the taking of a cell with genetic material and the cultivation of the cell through the egg, embryo, fetal and newborn stages into a new human individual."

Rep. Vernon Ehlers (R-Mich.) introduced two bills in the House. H.R. 922 dictates that "none of the funds made available in any Federal law may be expended to conduct or support any project of research that involves the use of a human somatic cell for the process of producing a human clone." H.R. 923 opens the door to civil penalties for using "a human somatic cell for the process of producing a human clone."

While all of these bills are well meaning, Feldbaum noted that Ehlers' bills leave the door open to interpretations that could stymie biotech research because they don't provide a definition of what is meant by producing a human clone. The Bond bill, while clearer about what is meant by cloning a human, is still under scrutiny, and BIO has not taken a position on it, Feldbaum said.

Even if Congress proceeds cautiously, biotech research faces a threat from state initiatives designed to prohibit human cloning. To date, BIO counts 12 bills that address human cloning in states as varied as Alabama, California and Florida.

"The worst bill is in Florida, where the proposed legislation bans the cloning of human DNA." Feldbaum said that, should such a bill become law, it would effectively eliminate medical research in the state. "This is a bill that we are going to oppose categorically."

"Cloning is not an issue for grandstanding," Feldbaum said. "State legislators need to know that if they enact a poorly written law they could drive biotech and medical research from their state."

The U.S. isn't the only country struggling with the challenge of crafting appropriate legislation. Feldbaum said that he has been informed of a Canadian bill in the Canadian House of Commons that could stymie research in that country. *