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Researchers, biomedical industry fear ‘hidden agenda’ of human cloning bill

Biomedical companies 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.

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.