The Senate Appropriations Subcommittee on Labor, Health and Human Services, Education and Related Agencies, chaired by Sen. Tom Harkin, D-Iowa, took up the ethical and practical questions surrounding research by Advanced Cell Technologies of Worcester, Mass. The company reported in late November it had successfully created very preliminary genetic copies of human embryos.
ACT said it stimulated a human egg to divide into new cells without being fertilized and had also transplanted adult cell DNA into an egg that had its original DNA removed -- an egg that then successfullly divided into six cells. The second method, called somatic cell nuclear transfer or SCNT, was at the core of the committee's discussions.
Harkin said ACT's announcement, despite its positive implications for accelerating stem-cell-based medical therapies, precipitated an "avalanche of disinformation" from groups fearing cloning's use in reproduction.
"One thing has become very clear in this debate," Harkin said. "As long as the opponents of stem-cell research can wave the flag of human cloning, science will be inhibited."
Harkin said he will soon introduce a bill to ban reproductive cloning, in order to satisfy those worrying about it, while allowing responsible stem-cell research to continue. The House passed a total ban on cloning methods in late July, but the Senate voted Monday evening to defer debate on that proposal.
Committee member Sen. Arlen Specter, R-Pa., said using "cloning" to describe ACT's work only confuses the issue. He called on the scientific community to take the lead in better educating the public as to what exactly is being done.
"There is no doubt about the abhorrence of reproductive cloning to create another human being, but simply stated, that is not what's involved here," Specter said. "It's plain at this juncture that we can have legislation that would ban human reproductive cloning without dealing with (SCNT)."
Sen. Sam Brownback, R-Kan., has been among those leading recent calls for a total cloning ban, and appeared before the committee to propose a 6-month moratorium on cloning research. The moratorium could include the criminal and civil penalties of the House ban, but with a sunset provision, he said.
Research into adult stem cells has shown medical promise, Brownback said, eliminating the need to immediately press forward with SCNT experiments. Many more hearings are needed to properly answer the many questions surrounding ACT's work, Brownback said.
"It is a debate over the moral status of the young human," Brownback said. "Succinctly put, is a cloned human a 'who' or a 'what'? Does a cloned human embryo have any moral significance? This is a moment in the history of humanity that we should pause ... and think this through."
Harkin and Brownback debated over exactly where in the process a cloning ban should be enacted. Brownback said prohibiting SCNT would be best, while Harkin said banning implantation of any embryos from SCNT work would achieve the same result while allowing investigation of medical therapies. Neither suggested, however, that violations of an implantation ban would call for aborting a resulting pregnancy.
Specter said the Senate is likely to debate a ban by March, and asked Brownback about the likelihood of reproductive cloning work occurring before then. Brownback said the surprise nature of ACT's announcement makes such an event quite possible, while Specter said the probability of that was nonexistent.
Researchers testifying before the committee said the debate over reproductive cloning is totally off-base, given the processes involved in ACT's work. Michael West, ACT's CEO, said the company's efforts result in the pre-embryonic "raw materials" of human life, and not an individual being. Stopping the cell's development before the point where it could be implanted in a woman's womb, he said, requires a new terminology.
Dr. Bert Vogelstein, chairman of the National Research Council's Biomedical Applications of Stem Cell Research Committee, said "nuclear transplantation" would be an acceptable phrase, since it implies the correct context of the work's intended purpose -- transplanting new, healthy cells into patients to cure disease. It's incorrect to equate genetically identical stem cells with a complete clone of a human being, he said.
West said a moratorium along the lines of Brownback's proposal could end up eventually costing the lives of more than 3,000 degenerative disease patients per day -- more than 500,000 people over 6 months.