- The Washington Times - Saturday, January 19, 2002

The National Academy of Sciences yesterday recommended that the United States make it a crime to attempt human cloning but encouraged the cloning of embryos in early stages to develop stem cells.
The committee of renowned scientists and physicians concluded: "Human reproductive cloning should not now be practiced. It is dangerous and likely to fail."
But they said using nuclear transplantation cloning to produce stem cells should be permitted for use in biomedical research because of the potential for developing new medical therapies for life-threatening diseases and advancing fundamental knowledge.
In reaching its conclusions, the panel considered only scientific and medical evidence. It did not address the ethical, religious and societal issues that cloning raises. However, it added, "A broad national dialogue on the societal, religious and ethical issues is encouraged on this matter."
Nuclear transplantation is the basic technique used when attempting to make identical genetic copies of embryos. It refers to the process of removing the nucleus from a donated egg and inserting in its place the nucleus of a body cell.
It's the nucleus that contains the chromosomes and genes that define a person. The body cells called "somatic cells" are obtained through skin biopsies or through extraction from bone marrow.
The committee acknowledged that the pace of research has quickened. It urged reconsidering the ban in five years to see whether scientists had completed research the panel said is needed before human cloning experiments should be contemplated.
The report was released as the Senate is preparing to debate a House-passed measure that calls for imposing a 10-year prison sentence and a $1 million fine on anyone attempting to clone a human. The administration-backed House measure also would outlaw the cloning of embryos to obtain stem cells.
Aside from its recommendations, the new report should prove useful in the ensuing legislative debate because it clarifies the distinction between human reproductive cloning and the cloning of embryos to produce stem cells for research.
On that point it states: "The public debate on the possible reproductive cloning of humans is often linked to the debate on human embryonic stem cells. Because one proposed method to establish new human embryonic stem cell lines uses a process very similar to the first steps in the reproductive cloning of complete humans, it is easy to understand how even a scientifically literate society could become confused about these issues."
The panelists state: "Clarity on these matters is vitally important since these issues involve both medical risk and opportunity, and the government is considering the use of sanctions on the free inquiry that normally characterizes effective research."
The essential difference between reproductive human cloning and "therapeutic cloning" or "research cloning," or "somatic cell nuclear transfer to produce stem cells" is that:
In reproductive cloning the early-stage embryo that results from the nuclear transfer is nurtured to the point that it can be implanted in the womb of a surrogate mother to produce an infant.
In therapeutic cloning the development of the resulting primitive embryo or "blastocyst" is halted as soon as a cluster of stem cells develops.
The intent is to "harvest" the stem cells for research. And the goal of much stem-cell research is to produce cells that can be injected in patients without fear that the injected cells will be rejected by the patient's body. The stem cells would be injected to replace or repair damaged cells, such as in a spinal cord injury.
The panel countered the common argument that permitting therapeutic cloning was, in effect, an open invitation for irresponsible scientists to attempt human cloning. It stated that a tough law against human cloning would prevent such experiments.
Biologist Irving Weissman of Stanford University headed the panel. He told reporters, "It's a serious matter for scientists to recommend any form of restriction on research, and the reasons for it must be compelling. In this case, we are convinced the potential dangers to the cloned fetus, the newborn and the woman carrying the fetus constitute just such a reason."
Others on the panel pointed out that although scientists seem to have succeeded in cloning five animal species since 1997, when Dolly the sheep became the first cloned mammal, only a small percent of the many cloning attempts actually worked. Most often the clones that made it to term were born dead or deformed.
The committee issued 12 findings on which it based its conclusions, and among them is the observation that the government's failure to limit and regulate experimental assisted reproductive technologies (ART) has deprived scientists of "important needed data for assessing novel ART procedures" such as those involved in cloning.
The committee recommends that Congress or the Executive Branch request that specialists study the lack of oversight of reproductive medicine and "report its findings and recommendations."
The suggestion is one long advocated by ethicists involved in the cloning debates.

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