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Scientists' Panel Endorses Cloning to Create Stem Cells

Medicine: The influential National Academy of Sciences says producing human clones should be illegal.

January 19, 2002|MEGAN GARVEY and RICHARD T. COOPER | TIMES STAFF WRITERS

WASHINGTON — Cloning to reproduce humans is currently unsafe and should be illegal, but cloning to produce stem cells for medical research has "considerable potential" and should be permitted, a National Academy of Sciences panel said Friday.

The recommendation by some of the nation's top scientists could prove influential as senators, many of whom are undecided on human cloning, prepare to debate whether to join the House in banning the technique for any purpose.

Most lawmakers want to ban cloning as a way to produce children, but a moral and political debate has flared over its use in the hunt for disease cures.

President Bush continues to favor a blanket ban on human cloning, his spokesman said Friday. "As the president has stated, 'We should not, as a society, grow life to destroy it,' " said Bush spokesman Ari Fleischer. He said the president "looks at these issues from a scientific and moral standpoint."

Presidential Council to Consider Report

As the academy released its report, based strictly on scientific considerations, the President's Council on Bioethics, created last summer to weigh the moral implications of new biotechnologies, was meeting to consider possible restrictions on embryonic cloning.

Council Chairman Leon R. Kass, a University of Chicago bioethicist, said he would circulate the academy report to members of his panel and invite representatives to discuss it with the council.

Compared to reproductive cloning, Kass said, "therapeutic cloning is a much more complicated issue" in moral terms, in part because of its potential for preserving life and alleviating suffering.

The National Academy of Sciences report was embraced by advocates for sufferers of diseases such as Parkinson's and diabetes, which many hope will prove susceptible to treatments developed from stem cells derived from cloned embryos. The broadest patient advocacy group said the recommendations from the academy "could not have come at a better time."

"We feel strongly that the American public would support biomedical research using [therapeutic cloning] to produce lifesaving embryonic stem cells if they are given a chance to fully understand the difference from reproductive cloning," said Michael Manganiello, president of the Coalition for the Advancement of Medical Research.

Cloning opponents, by contrast, blasted the scientists' recommendations.

"It is deeply disturbing that the National Academy of Sciences feels they can divide humanity into two different classes and condemn one class of humans to destruction--creating a human embryo for the express purpose of destroying it," said Sen. Sam Brownback (R-Kan.), a leading opponent of cloning research.

The issue of human cloning, which has prompted references in Congress to "Frankenstein" scenarios, has proved extremely sensitive for lawmakers and scientists alike.

In Friday's report, the academy panel referred to cloning for research purposes not as "therapeutic cloning" but as "nuclear transplantation to produce stem cells."

Douglas Johnson, the legislative director for the National Right to Life Committee, called the language shift a "smoke screen of euphemisms."

"The word games are disturbing," Johnson said. "It's clear that what these scientists want is to permit these labs to mass-produce human embryos for the purpose of killing them."

Analysis Could Have 'Tremendous Impact'

Proponents of therapeutic cloning argue that it could be permitted without a "slippery slope" to the creation of a cloned human baby occurring.

Daniel Perry, head of the Alliance for Aging Research, predicted the academy analysis would "have a tremendous impact on shaping the terms of debate: whether Americans are prepared to take the unprecedented step of imposing criminal penalties on researchers who are trying to find treatments for diseases like cancer and Alzheimer's."

In cloning, scientists remove the DNA from an egg and replace it with genetic material from another person--the procedure referred to as nuclear transplantation. The result is an embryo with the genetic makeup of only one parent instead of a combination of two.

Some researchers say the ability to produce genetically identical stem cells--cells in the earliest form of development that still have the potential to become any part of the body--has great potential. An organ that could be grown using a individual's own genetic material would not be rejected as a foreign object, a common problem in transplant surgeries.

Still, scientists caution that research is far from that stage, and cloning opponents argue that advances can be made in science using stem cells derived from sources other than cloning.

The National Academy of Sciences report said any ban on reproductive human cloning should be reviewed within five years if new science indicates the procedure would be safe and a national dialogue on the "societal, religious and ethical issues" warrants reconsideration.

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