San Diego Business Journal

Senate Vote Set on Human Cloning

Biotech: Reproductive Cloning Vs. Therapeutic Research Debate Continues

Senior Staff Writer

In the coming weeks, the U.S. Senate will vote on a bill that would ban all types of human cloning or adopt an alternative measure that would leave the door open for medical research.

The House of Representatives has already passed legislation introduced by Sens. Sam Brownback, R-Kan., and Mary Landrieu, D-La., to ban human cloning for both reproductive and research purposes.

President George W. Bush said he would sign the bill.

The Biotechnology Industry Organization, which represents the nation's biotech industry, and its San Diego affiliate, Biocom, as well as several scientific groups, are pinning their hopes on a bill introduced last month by Sens. Dianne Feinstein of California and Edward Kennedy of Massachusetts, both Democrats, that would criminalize the use of cloning to create humans, but allow it for research.

The debate pits anti-abortion groups and other opponents who view human cloning as unethical and potentially dangerous against scientists and patients hoping for new treatments of such debilitating diseases as Alzheimer's and Parkinson's.

Lutz Giebel, president and CEO of CyThera Inc. of San Diego, said he is probably one of the few scientists to express reservations on the benefits of research cloning , which involves creating and destroying embryos to obtain cells and tissue to treat disease.

He said therapeutic cloning may be too costly to become a viable business model.

"I believe that a ban (on therapeutic cloning) would not have a big impact in deriving therapies from embryonic stem cells in the near future," Giebel said.

In contrast to therapeutic cloning, embryonic stem cell research derives cells and tissue from embryos left over from in vitro fertilization.

These unspecialized cells are already being tested in animals for use in repairing spinal cord damage and Parkinson's disease.

CyThera has nine out of 76 total stem cell lines approved for federally funded research.

The biotech startup hopes to trick stem cells into making pancreatic islet cells , the cells that make insulin which are destroyed in Type-I diabetes , and thus, develop therapies without using controversial cloning technology.

The same cells could theoretically be used for cloning technology.

But Giebel said he has no intention of pursuing therapeutic cloning, which uses a person's own DNA to grow cells like brain neurons to potentially treat Alzheimer's disease.

To grow genetically identical neurons that wouldn't be rejected by one's own body would be extremely challenging, considering there are some 20,000 different tissue types, he said.

Doctors would need to generate a single line for each individual patient and that would be very costly, Giebel said.

Joseph Panetta, CEO and president of Biocom, the local trade association for life sciences firms and Larry Goldstein, a UCSD professor, however, said there are potentially huge benefits and predicted a ban would have a "chilling effect on research."

Most of the therapeutic cloning is done at the basic research level in institutions such as UCSD, the Scripps Research Institute and Salk Institute, Panetta said.

Goldstein, who works on embryonic stem cells, said their research is pivotal in discovering new therapies.

Giebel echoed their views, saying "a ban could do some serious damage, because we don't know what the potentials are."

He said a similar debate that took place in the 1970s around "recombinant DNA," a technology that has yielded more than 100 drugs, including monoclonal antibodies to treat cancer, hormones to treat infertility and clot-dissolvers for stroke victims.

Back then, scientists adhered to a moratorium.

Similarly, 40 Nobel Prize laureates recently released a letter in strong support of cloning.

Sen. Orrin Hatch of Utah, a leading Republican, drew harsh criticism from anti-abortion allies when he announced his support for research cloning.

Panetta warned if a total cloning ban is enforced, the United States could lose its competitive edge to such countries as the United Kingdom, which allows cloning.