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Bill Introduced to Ban Human Cloning

Critics: Legislation Could Hinder Development Of Life-Saving Treatments
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WebMD Health News

Jan. 8, 2003 -- While Congress was away, the Raelians claimed two cloned human babies had been born with three more on the way. It didn't take long for the 108th Congress to respond. On its second day, Rep. Dave Weldon, MD, R-Fla., and Rep. Bart Stupak, D-Mich., announced they will introduce legislation to ban human cloning. The bill is in response to both the Raelians, whose credibility Weldon doubts, and researchers and physicians in the U.S. and other countries who have announced intentions to pursue reproductive human cloning.

Entitled the Human Cloning Prohibition Act of 2003, the bill would ban human cloning for both therapeutic research and reproductive purposes. Leaving human cloning for research alone would make the bill unenforceable, Weldon says, because the techniques are virtually identical and take place in private laboratories that are difficult to police.

Like reproductive cloning, therapeutic cloning involves taking the DNA from one of a patient's cells and allowing it to multiply into a very early embryo. Some of the embryo's cells could theoretically be implanted back into the patient, replacing, for example, nerve cells that have been ravaged by Parkinson's disease or a spinal injury. Therapeutic cloning has yet to be demonstrated in humans, although there is evidence that it works in animals, according to Robert Lanza, MD, medical director of Advanced Cell Technologies, a company that is developing treatments using such cells.

Weldon hastened to add that the bill would allow cloning of animals and their cells and tissues, and current stem cell research performed on existing normal human embryos could continue. Researchers have also made some progress in using so-called "adult stem cells" harvested from a patient and then re-implanting them after bolstering them in the lab. Such approaches have potential, but most scientists agree that adult-derived stem cells do not have the same potency and flexibility as embryonic stem cells.

"[The bill] will not stifle research," Weldon says.

Lanza isn't so sure. He says that 3,000 Americans die every day from diseases that could be treated with embryonic stem cells if the field reaches its potential. "This research is going to proceed overseas regardless of what we do here in the U.S. Anyone who is going to abuse this technology is not going to want to face a $10 million fine and a prison sentence... it would penalize patients," Lanza tells WebMD.

The bill has language built into it so that, if it passes, the congressional general accounting office will be required to revisit the issue in four years. If researchers make significant strides in animal models and demonstrate that therapeutic cloning is ready to make an impact in human patients, the GAO could recommend to Congress that it consider lifting the ban on therapeutic cloning, Weldon says.

Not good enough, counters Lanza. "Three-thousand people are dying every day. They don't have four years."

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