By Lisa Seachrist

Washington Editor

WASHINGTON — The scientific benefits and moral pitfalls associated with cloning took center stage on Capitol Hill Wednesday as scientists and ethicists discussed the thorny issue of regulating cloning research with the House Subcommittee on Technology.

In opening statements, Subcommittee Chairwoman Constance Morella (R-Md.) simultaneously highlighted the potential of animal cloning to improve human health by speeding the development of both new drugs and animal organs for human transplantation while acknowledging that the technique comes saddled with ethical concerns.

"As we move forward with this hearing and discuss possible legislative action, I would urge all of my colleagues to use today's hearing to act wisely and deliberately on this issue," Morella said. "We must be careful not to outlaw or restrict potentially positive scientific developments with overly prescriptive legislation aimed at aspects of cloning which we do not support or condone, such as human cloning."

The panel * comprised of National Institutes of Health (NIH) Director Harold Varmus, Caird Rexroad, of the Agricultural Research Service, M. Susan Smith, director of the Oregon Regional Primate Center, Thomas Murray, of the National Bioethics Advisory Commission and James Geraghty, CEO of Genzyme Transgenics Corp., in Framingham, Mass., — uniformly agreed with Morella's view that legislation governing cloning needs to be carefully crafted.

Varmus highlighted the Clinton Administration's handling of the concern over the issue of cloning research noting that the president asked the National Bioethics Advisory Commission (NBAC) to discuss the ethics of cloning research with an emphasis on human cloning as well as instituting a ban on the use of federal funds for research into human cloning.

"It is important that we contemplate the issues raised by the possibility of human cloning," Varmus said. "I particularly applaud the president's decision to refer the issue to the NBAC. It is important that we allow the commission to do its work."

Nevertheless, legislation already has been introduced in both the House and Senate. Subcommittee member Vern Ehlers (R-Mich.) said that he had just introduced HR 922 to ban the use of federal funds for research into human cloning and HR 923 to make research into human cloning illegal. Sen. Christopher Bond (R-Mont.) introduced S 368 to ban the use of federal money for human cloning research.

When Ehlers asked the panel for comments about his legislation, Varmus pointed out that any legislation would need to be very tightly crafted and voiced concern that the legislation was too hasty to allow for "a period to absorb and discuss the issues."

"I would hope that before any irreversible action is made on those bills that we [NBAC] can have our 90 days for discussion," Murray added.

Varmus, Smith, Rexroad and Geraghty addressed the actual scientific breakthroughs that the Scottish scientists achieved with the cloned sheep Dolly as well as the rhesus monkeys that were cloned from embryos at Smith's institution. Congressman Merrill Cook (R-Utah) questioned whether the sheep cloning was a hoax.

"I come from Salt Lake City, Utah," Cook said. "And, not too long ago we had our own scientific breakthrough to contend with: cold fusion. How do we know that this is real?"

Rexroad answered by revealing that Dolly is not alone among cloned sheep. "I am quite confident that this is a reproducible result. I have had discussions with researchers in New Zealand who have also cloned an adult sheep," Rexroad said. Those result, however, have yet to be published in the peer-reviewed scientific literature.

Walter Capps (D-Calif), a former professor of religion, questioned the panel about what positive moral or ethical implications the cloning research could have for society. "It is a mistake to underestimate the power of these types of discoveries to change the way we think of ourselves," Capps said.

Varmus suggested that the discussions could cause a shift from what he saw as the overemphasis on the importance of genes and the underemphasis of experience.

"Genes have become, in my view, overdeterminants of who we are and how we behave," Varmus said. "It is a fantasy to think that someone who has the same genetic makeup as I do is me. It may make us respect the impact of life history in determining who we are."

The discussion over cloning research will continue as the NBAC has devoted the entirety of their March 13-14 meeting to the president's request that they consider the ethics of cloning. *