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Minnesota bill to ban human cloning could chill other research

The director of the University of Minnesota’s Stem Cell Institute and others worry the proposed legislation, if adopted, would send a message that the state is anti-science and anti-research.

Before Jonathan Slack, professor and director of the Stem Cell Institute, came to the University of Minnesota in 2007, he had to contend with bewildered colleagues and friends in the U.K.

“Why are you going to the U.S.?” they asked. “They don’t allow stem cell research there.”

Slack knew better — he was aware that while there were limits on federal funds for human embryonic stem cell research at the time, there was no legal impediment to engage in that activity.

Four years later, Slack is faced with a bill in the Minnesota Legislature that, if passed, he fears would send a message that the state is anti-science and anti-research. On Tuesday, Slack was joined by his colleagues at the university’s Stem Cell Institute, the dean of the university’s medical school, the director of research at the Mayo Clinic College of Medicine and three executives representing local biomedical companies to sound collective alarm (and ire) over the Human Cloning Prevention Act, a bill that is currently in committee. The event took place at the University of Minnesota campus in Minneapolis.

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Supported by the Minnesota Citizens Concerned for Life, the bill seeks to criminalize human cloning, something that neither the U nor the Mayo desire to be engaged in. It has no bearing on embryonic stem cell research and will not affect any research currently being pursued in the state, but speakers at the event believe it sets a dangerous precedent.

“All of us are afraid collectively…that it will be very hard to interpret and if it is hard to interpret it will wind up in court,” said Doug Kohrs, CEO of Tornier, a French orthopedics company with U.S. headquarters in Edina. “Courts will tell these guys at the Mayo and U what they can and cannot do.”

Meri Firpo, an assistant professor at the Stem Cell Institute,said the bill is vague, although narrowly worded.

“The term ‘cloning’ is emotionally evocative but not specific technically,” she said.

Slack echoed her.

“Genes are being cloned every day and there is cloning of human cells. Could lawyers consider that to be human cloning?” he asked. “It isn’t the business of legislators to decide what researchers can do.”

The group that gathered to denounce the bill as “very bad for Minnesota” and a “fundamental and significant risk” to the state believes that it is a step to ban human embryonic stem cell research, an activity frowned upon by anti-abortion activists.

It’s not clear whether the Minnesota Citizens Concerned for Life will seek an outright ban on embryonic stem cell research in the future. While the group’s executive director Scott Fischbach said he favored former President George Bush’s policies– where researchers could use federal funds on existing stem cell lines, but not to create new ones– he noted that banning embryonic stem cell research is “not a priority for us now.” His wife, Michelle Fischbach, is one of the chief authors of the bill in the Minnesota Senate. There is a House companion bill too.

As the bills wind their way through committee, University of Minnesota officials said they are already feeling its chilling effect. Aaron Friedman, dean of the U’s Medical School, said that U faculty members and researchers are receiving calls from people from out of state asking them to come to a more friendly research environment.

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“I do hear about the contacts that Stanford and Harvard have made with our faculty,” Friedman said. “It’s not a potential chilling effect. It’s already happening.”

Firpo, who came to Minnesota from California, attracted by the state’s expertise in biomedicine, said unequivocally that she would move her lab elsewhere if the bill passed. Firpo works with embryonic stem cells and is engaged in the development of stem cell-based therapies for diabetes.

In fact, the U asked TrippUmbach, a consulting firm, to quantify the economic impact the bill’s passage would have on the U, and in turn, on the state of Minnesota. The results: the U would lose 148 jobs and the state would lose another 201. It would also result in a $48.4 million loss for the entire state.

Business executives at the meeting — Rob Cohen of startup Miromatrix Medical and Matt Kyle, CEO of regenerative medicine firm Circle Biologics, and Kohrs of Tornier — said they intend to remain in Minnesota, but the bill does tarnish the state’s reputation and its ability to recruit talented people.