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Cloned Embryo Use Is Defended

Research: Scientist involved in the latest advance says he sees it as 'making medicine,' not the creation of a human being.


WASHINGTON — For Jose Cibelli, one of the scientists who created the first cloned human embryo, the question of when human life begins is as clear as it is critical.

What his company did, Cibelli said at a biotechnology conference Tuesday, was merely inject genetic material from one individual into egg cells from another. In some cases, the eggs then grew into as many as six cells before stopping.

Ideally, he said, the eggs will grow long enough to produce stem cells, which he and his colleagues believe can be coaxed in the laboratory to generate cells that can replace unhealthy tissue in diseased people. He said they have no intention of producing a cloned baby.

"I don't think that's the creation of a human being," he said. "It's just a new way of making medicine."

He conceded that his view is "extremely personal"--and that others hold sharply different ones. President Bush, for example, has condemned the research announced Sunday by Massachusetts-based Advanced Cell Technology Inc. as both "bad public policy" and "morally wrong."

The outcome of the debate over so-called therapeutic cloning--the creation of a cloned human embryo solely for medical treatments--will have far-reaching implications.

This summer the House of Representatives voted to ban all human cloning. Senate Democrats said this week that they plan to take up the issue early next year, despite pressure from conservative lawmakers to act immediately to prevent further attempts to clone human embryos.

Cibelli, speaking to reporters after he addressed a National Research Council conference here on concerns about genetically engineered animals, said he remained hopeful that the Senate would allow his research. Acknowledging the aversion of many people to any type of cloning, he added that scientists needed to aggressively pursue alternative ways to create embryonic stem cells for medical uses.

Virtually all lawmakers oppose producing cloned babies. And most scientific experts say that, ethics aside, human cloning is still unsafe.

But there is far more disagreement about the type of research being pursued by Advanced Cell Technology. Cibelli and his colleagues stripped an unfertilized human egg of its DNA and replaced it with the DNA of another person, creating an embryo that could have, if it had been healthy and implanted in a uterus, grown into a child that would be a genetic copy of the donor--an identical twin to someone decades older.

During Tuesday's presentations, there was a hint of some of the anger in the scientific community about how the complex process has been described in the press. Robert Wall, a U.S. Agriculture Department physiologist, interrupted his talk on how genetically engineered animals are created to admonish a handful of journalists there hoping to learn more about Cibelli's experiments.

"You incorrectly call that cloning and I wish you'd stop it," he said.

Cibelli, however, said semantics didn't matter. He said he was more "confused" by the lack of distinction drawn between therapeutic cloning--intended to derive new medical treatments--and reproductive cloning--to create a living copy of an individual.

"If you're explicit about this and say whoever transfers [the cloned embryo] into the uterus is doing reproductive cloning and therefore will be subject to such and such punishment . . . there shouldn't be any problem to try to avoid that."

Cloning opponents say the distinctions are not so easy.

"You have to look at it as to where these steps are pushing the technology and where they are pushing society," said Stuart Newman, a professor of cell biology and anatomy at New York Medical College who is on the board of the Council for Responsible Genetics. "By developing these cloning techniques, they are creating momentum toward creating full-term human clones."

Newman questioned the safety of cells derived from a cloned human embryo, a technique that requires intrusive procedures on both the egg and donor cell.

"When you're bringing together damaged cells, you can't expect to get something normal," he said.

Sean Tipton, spokesman for the American Society for Reproductive Medicine, which supports the research, said the argument for therapeutic cloning is harder to make in part because explaining the science isn't simple.

"All they have to say is, cloning equals evil," he said. "We have to say: It's research, and we may learn something new and we aren't sure exactly what that will be or when."

Many researchers believe that cloning holds the best promise for major breakthroughs in the treatment of diseases ranging from Parkinson's to diabetes because it has the potential to allow researchers to grow new cells and organs that are an exact genetic match for the patient.

The question of when a life begins has been key to the debates on both cloning and stem cell research. But while some lawmakers who oppose abortion rights were willing to allow some leeway on stem cell research, few make the same concession for cloning.

Cibelli said Tuesday he believes his research has "terrific" implications for medicine.

"When cloning works properly, it will reset the clock," he said. "Imagine, if you can, having a new immune system [in] your 70s."

Newman said that was "just really playing on fantasy medicine."

He added: "We never promised that people would live forever."

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