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Therapeutic cells may be here soon

The head of a company that cloned human cells surprises senators; critics are skeptical.

Washington Bureau Chieffritz
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© St. Petersburg Times,
published December 5, 2001

WASHINGTON -- The president of a company involved in cloning research suggested Tuesday that in the next six months his firm will develop human cells with the potential to cure degenerative illnesses that kill an estimated 3,000 people a day.

Members of a Senate subcommittee were surprised by the testimony of Michael West, president of Advanced Cell Technology of Worcester, Mass. Although West's company recently announced it has successfully cloned human cells, the senators said they were unaware that more breakthroughs could be expected in the near future.

West's testimony was viewed with some skepticism in the biotechnology industry, however, and West admitted he could be wrong. "Science moves at an unpredictable pace," he said.

West, an intense, soft-spoken man, argued against a proposed six-month federal ban on cloning of human cells, noting that more than 500,000 people will die of degenerative diseases during that period. Without such a ban, he said, perhaps some of them might be saved by the work of his firm.

He predicted that the first three illnesses that may be treated with his technology, nuclear cell transfer, are Parkinson's, heart disease and diabetes. He said he would be disappointed if he hadn't found a way to create cells with that potential by mid 2002.

Opponents of a cloning ban were overjoyed by West's testimony. They indicated they intend to cite it in the upcoming cloning debate in Congress to demonstrate that the benefits of this research far outweigh the moral questions posed by opponents.

"I find that exhilarating," said Sen. Tom Harkin, D-Iowa, chairman of the Appropriations Subcommittee on Labor, Health and Human Services, and Education. "Rather than a moratorium ... I think we ought to promote and support as much as we can the nuclear cell transfer."

Advanced Cell Technology made headlines last week when it announced that it had successfully cloned clusters of human cells. The news caused opponents of such research to renew their efforts to impose a ban on cloning of all human cells. At present, the only ban applies to federally funded research that goes beyond 64 existing stem cell lines.

Sen. Sam Brownback, R-Kan., called on the Senate to enact either a permanent ban on all human cell cloning, similar to one that passed this year in the House, or a six-month moratorium that would enable policymakers to study the moral ramifications of the latest breakthrough.

"This is (an issue) that shouldn't be decided by private companies," Brownback said, referring to Advanced Cell Technology and other firms involved in cell research.

Sen. Arlen Specter, R-Pa., quickly challenged Brownback, asking why scientists should not be entitled to make these decisions, with the help of their ethical advisory boards.

"Why should these decisions be made in Room 192 of the Dirksen Senate Office Building (where the hearing was held) rather than in a laboratory?" Specter demanded.

"This is the appropriate place," Brownback replied. "This is where the people's business is discussed."

Although the full Senate voted against dealing with cloning Monday night, members of Congress on both sides of the debate are promising the issue will be taken up early next year, if not sooner.

West, whose 40-person company does several types of cell research, said the debate over cloning of human cells mirrors a previous public controversy surrounding in vitro fertilization, where embryos are created in the laboratory from sperm and eggs, and then implanted in a woman's womb. He said the country grew accustomed to this procedure after people stopped referring to it negatively as the creation of "test tube babies."

Likewise, he said, the public will accept the procedures he is using once it becomes clear that his company is trying to use cloning for therapeutic purposes, not for human reproduction. "We're not talking about cloning a human being; we're talking about cloning a cell," he said.

As West explained it, his company is using a process of "nuclear transfer": joining a human cell with an egg in order to create a basic stem cell. He insisted that the product of this process is just "a little clump of cells" that does not constitute a human embryo, as some critics contend.

West said the next step, which his firm has not accomplished, would be to transform the stem cell into a "differentiated" cell that would match the original cells in the brain of a Parkinson's victim or in the heart of a heart disease patient. This is the step he hopes to complete within six months.

After that, the new cells would be transplanted into the patient's degenerating organ and would multiply, restoring the strength of the organ. This process is still far from being developed.

In theory, Harkin and Specter noted, basic stem cells could be used either to create therapeutic cells, as West's company is doing, or to create a cloned human being. They said the law should be written to block cloning of a human being while allowing the creation of therapeutic cells. Brownback and other cloning opponents would prohibit both steps.

Ronald M. Green, a Dartmouth University ethicist who has worked with Advanced Cell Technology, explained that in the "not-too-distant future" a mother could donate an egg from her ovaries that could be used to help cure her child with juvenile diabetes.

"A cell could be scraped from the inside of the child's cheek," Green said. "Using the kind of nuclear transfer procedure being research now by ACT, it might then be possible to produce a stem cell line that could be coaxed to differentiate into new, insulin-producing cells. These cells could be injected back into the child's body, where they would provide an entirely new pancreatic system. Because these cells were made from the child's own genetic material, they would not be rejected. The child would be spared a life-threatening disease often accompanied by amputations or blindness."

Phyllis E. Greenberger, president of the Society for Women's Health Research, urged Congress to allow victims of degenerative diseases to make their own ethical decisions about the benefits and drawbacks of human cell cloning.

Noting that both her mother and a friend suffer from Parkinson's, she said she opposes a ban on such research. "Every day that it takes (to find a cure) is another day of agony for them," she said.

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