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Researchers, biomedical industry fear 'hidden agenda' of human cloning bill

Dr. Meri Firpo
Dr. Meri Firpo

Checking her e-mail one evening earlier this month, University of Minnesota stem cell researcher Dr. Meri Firpo received four messages of concern within an hour.

Firpo learned from the deluge of mail — sent by colleagues from as far away as California — that a Minnesota anti-abortion group was lobbying at the state Legislature to ban human cloning.

"Here we go again," Firpo thought to herself.

In 2009, the group Minnesota Citizens Concerned for Life succeeded in enacting a two-year state funding ban on human cloning.

Rep. Bob Dettmer and Sen. Michelle Fischbach — whose husband, Scott Fischbach, is the executive director of MCCL — are now looking to go one step further than banning funding. This time, they want to make human cloning a criminal offense.


"This bill takes the next logical step and prohibits cloning altogether, not just the funding of it with tax dollars," MCCL legislative associate Andrea Rau told the Senate Judiciary and Public Safety Committee on Thursday.

Anti-abortion groups and many scientists alike denounce human reproductive cloning, which is one part of the bill.

Scientists fear 'disruption' of research
But Firpo and other researchers fear organizations like MCCL and the lawmakers that carry these proposals also have a "hidden agenda," and they're concerned such legislation could devastate future research and business in Minnesota.

"We believe that this bill is a preliminary to another bill which will seek to ban the use of human embryonic stem cells and that really will be disruptive to a number of research programs with important potential clinical benefits," said. Dr. Jonathan Slack, director of the University of Minnesota's Stem Cell Institute.

Dr. Paul Knoepfler, a stem cell researcher at University of California, Davis, agreed with Slack's assessment.

Dettmer, the bill's House author, said he has no current plans to introduce legislation criminalizing embryonic stem cell research, but he left open the possibility, depending on public input.

"People look at a bill like this, and a lot of times their imaginations will carry them into areas not covered in the legislation," he said, stressing that his proposal still allows animal and plant cloning.

On a more fundamental level, the biomedical industry and stem cell advocates worry that the proposal will send the message that Minnesota is a poor place to perform research or start a company, even if it never becomes law.

The proposed measure seems to be projecting that image nationally.

"Life as a scientist is challenging enough," even in California, where stem cell research isn't in jeopardy, Knoepfler said. He added that scientists are likely to choose states with a stable policy atmosphere when considering where to begin their research.

 "Anyone from out of state is going to look at stem cell research in Minnesota as a 'no-go,' because if this is the direction that this state is going in, why would you link your future to doing research here?" Firpo said.

BioBusiness Alliance worries about 'unintended consequences'
Likewise, businesses aren't willing to invest in a state that could outlaw the products they're trying to create.

Dale Wahlstrom, chief executive officer of the BioBusiness Alliance of Minnesota, said his organization is concerned with the legislation's "unintended consequences" and the potentially fatal blow it could deliver to the state's fledgling biomedical industry. Companies crave stability when choosing where to open, he said, but the bill's vague language and potential future implications limit the risk businesses are willing to take.

"This bill is bad for business in Minnesota," he said.

But proponents have a much different set of priorities, often guided by a strict sense of morality specific to human embryos.

Bill Poehler, an MCCL spokesman, called the "manipulation and destruction of human life" involved in cloning unethical, while scientists like Firpo and Dr. John Wagner, clinical director of the Stem Cell Institute, focus on the potential benefits for patients with diseases like Alzheimer's and diabetes.

Part of Firpo's research focuses on finding a potential cure for diabetes by using induced pluripotent stem cells, which are harvested from adults and forced to act like their embryonic counterparts. Her goal is to create healthy, insulin-producing stem cells that correct a diabetic patient's imbalance.

But both types of stem cells are riddled with problems.

MCCL supports the scientific use of induced pluripotent stem cells because embryos aren't destroyed in the process of making them. But significant clinical challenges, including malignant tumor growth in lab animals, make their use in humans more complicated.  

Most laboratories use both embryonic and induced pluripotent stem cells for comparison, Firpo said. Unfortunately, most types of embryonic stem cells contain foreign genetic material that is often rejected by a patient's body.

MCCL opposes 'therapeutic cloning'
A potentially significant type of future research called "therapeutic cloning" could be effective if problems with induced pluripotent stem cells prove insurmountable. But, to researchers' displeasure, Dettmer's proposal would outlaw the practice.

Both types of cloning begin with the same chemical process, but researchers support therapeutic cloning because it uses a patient's DNA to create embryonic stem cells, decreasing the chance of rejection.

But to MCCL, "It's just human cloning with a death sentence at the end of it" because embryos are ultimately discarded, Rau said.

Wagner and a handful of DFLers on the Senate Judiciary and Public Safety Committee tried to remove language prohibiting therapeutic cloning from the bill, citing its potential to inspire revolutionary medical advances, but were ultimately unsuccessful.

"[The bill] won't change any actual research that we're doing now, but it might prevent me from doing research in the future that will allow me to cure diabetes," Firpo said.

James Nord, a University of Minnesota student, is a MinnPost intern.

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Comments (8)

Sounds like a job killer to me. Anti-business as well. Therefore, must be something the DFL ginned up. Oh, wait ...

I am really glad to see news coverage of this issue. The reporter got the issues right. The attempt to ban and criminalize fundamental biomedical research in Minnesota is a a huge story.

The biomedical business community and the public concerned with treatment and cures of diseases such as type 1 diabetes should be alarmed by the Minnesota Legislature's linkage between the abortion issue and scientific research.

Researchers do not want to clone human beings. They want to have the right to pursue therapies and cures for people with progressive diseases but this bill will outlaw and criminalize this therapeutic cloning of stem cells.

It will be a sad day for the people of Minnesota if a small interest group succeeds in banning this promising research. The U of M's Stem Cell Institute would virtually shut down. Minnesota could become a science-free zone, those research jobs will go elsewhere, and patients will suffer.

This is the sort of issue that comes to my mind every time I hear or read someone comment about the importance of math and science skills and knowledge “in comparison to” the social studies. Without diminishing at all the importance of the broad scientific questions of “How?” and “Why?,” and the math and science skills necessary to pursue the answers to those questions, I’ve argued for years that the really crucial question that eventually must be dealt with in virtually every field of scientific inquiry is: “To what end?,” and that is not a math or science question at all, but one intimately and inextricably associated with the realms of morality and politics.

While not all science is genuinely value-neutral, it seems a truism that the consequences of any scientific endeavor I can think of at the moment must eventually be dealt with politically, and that’s where the view begins to get cloudy, indeed, and often very quickly. This issue is merely a case in point.

The value of stem cell research seems undeniable. At the same time, and with due deference to Republican and Democratic rhetoric about the importance of jobs, I’d argue that “job creation” and/or a “favorable business climate” ought to be near the bottom of the list of issues to be considered when thinking about the consequences of both the research under way, and the potential restriction(s) imposed by this bill, or its apparently-assumed successor. “Business values” ought not to be be used to determine the implicit or explicit value of either the bill being proposed or the science it purports to address. We have ample evidence that business, for the most part, has no values worth consideration beyond a desire to make money, and that strikes me as a morally-repugnant basis upon which to decide whether stem cell research and/or cloning should continue, or what sorts of restrictions should be placed upon it, if any.

It would be easier to take the concerns expressed by Minnesota Citizens Concerned for Life seriously if their political agenda matched the name of their organization. Unfortunately, that doesn’t seem to be the case. I’ve not come across any mention of MCCL publicly opposing hunting, nor, and more to the point, has MCCL taken a public position of which I’m aware in opposition to military conflict. Are they closely allied with Quaker organizations in their opposition to war? Do they regularly support anti-poverty programs? Are they among the leaders in their support for education? Care for the elderly? Health care for all? Pure and healthy food? If not, then it’s not life, per se, or even human life, that they’re concerned about, but something else.

The MCCL has but ONE concern: the well being of the collection of cells that results from each and every coming together of human sperm and egg, no matter where that coming together occurs, from that moment when sperm fertilizes egg right up until that collection of cells is born into the world and draws its first breath (the moment, according to the second chapter of Genesis when, as with the fully formed but not yet fully human Adam, God breathes a soul into that collection of cells and it becomes a "living human").

As soon as that "human" has a soul, the MCCL somehow regards it as scum just like the rest of us humans; as infected with original sin, deserving of no consideration, nor of any resources it can't procure by its own efforts.

To our friends of the MCCL and their supporters, humans do not seem to have any value whatsoever except during that short space of time from the moment of "conception" until the moment of "birth."

Interference with that pre-birth collection of cells, even if such interference could save millions of lives of those who have already been born, is not acceptable because that collection of not-yet-born cells is seen as humanity in it's purest, holiest, most perfect form, and therefore, infinitely more valuable than the life of any post-birth human, that holiness and purity having somehow been destroyed in the birth process.

Autologous Stem Cells (including the VSEL type cell) are now being used successfully at the University of Miami Florida. Your best stem cells are your own!

The issues involved in this policy are clearly complex and rooted in differing value and belief systems. However, the policy needs to be informed by the most recent scientific advances. In this case, policy makers need to understand that human embryonic stem cell lines can now be developed without harm to human embryos.
Just last Feb. 23, 2011 Advanced Cell Technology was awarded a patent on its 'single-blastomere' technique. Here are excerpts from the company's press release:

'The single-blastomere technology uses a one-cell biopsy approach similar to pre-implantation genetic diagnosis (PGD), which is widely used in the in vitro fertilization (IVF) process and does not interfere with the embryo's developmental potential.  The stem cells generated using this approach are healthy, completely normal, and differentiate into all the cell types of the human body, including insulin-producing cells, blood cells, beating heart cells, cartilage, and other cell types of therapeutic importance.  The safety record for one-cell biopsy as part of PGD now has a 15-year track record, and is carried out routinely as part of IVF processes around the world.  ACT's "embryo-safe" technique has been published in been peer-reviewed journals such as Nature and Cell Stem Cell.
In the US alone, over 100 people die every hour from diseases that could potentially benefit from this 'embryo-safe' technique.  Single cells are removed from the embryos, which remain healthy and continue to develop normally at rates consistent with whole (non-biopsied) embryos.'

Regenerative medicine and stem cell science represents a dramatic new approach towards medicine. Minnesota legislators ought not get in the way of what is good for the Minnesota economy and human health the world over. Embryonic stem cell science does not have to harm a single embryo, on the contrary it aims to improve human health.

In the Senate Healthcare committee, Sen. Fischbach and Ms. Rau from the MCCL said several times that the bill wasn't meant to restrict stem cell research. So I offered a simple amendment that said "Nothing in this section would restrict human stem cell research." Of course, they opposed the amendment and it was not adopted.

I'm not a vegetarian, nor anything resembling an 'animal rights' advocate, BUT what I find insanely self serving about this bill is that it's just fine to clone animals for obvious 'product' purposes. An absolutely illustrative example of breath taking hypocrisy from those 'culture of life' types.