Wednesday, March 30, 2011

A bill that would ban human cloning in Minnesota has rekindled the heated dispute over stem cell research at the U.


David Joles, Star Tribune

In search: U lab tech Christopher Chapman, foreground, and freshman Taylor Millikan worked at stem cell diabetic research.

Stakes are high in new debate over cloning at U

A bill that would ban human cloning in Minnesota has rekindled the heated dispute over stem cell research at the U.

To one side, it's making research ethical. To another, it's a research killer.

A proposed Minnesota law that would make human cloning a felony offense is reigniting the contentious debate over cloning and stem cell research.

The bill's advocates say it would still allow stem cell research that does not rely on destruction of embryos, including adult stem cells. Minnesota ought to focus on that kind of "ethical" research anyway, said Scott Fischbach, executive director of the Minnesota Citizens Concerned for Life.

"We're going to find cures, and we're going to find treatments," he said. "But nobody's going to get killed as we do it."

Opponents say the bill's language -- banning "human cloning" -- is purposely deceptive but that its message would be clear: Minnesota opposes cutting-edge research.

Some University of Minnesota officials and researchers predict that the bill could decimate emerging fields of study. Families battling disease worry that it could slow the discovery of cures. Bio-tech business leaders say that it promotes an anti-innovation culture that will push business out of the state and discourage companies from locating here.

"If we put a bubble around our state, it will drive us out of the knowledge-based economy," said Dale Wahlstrom, CEO of the BioBusiness Alliance of Minnesota.

The ban could hit the floor this week as part of the health and human services omnibus bill. On Tuesday, the House and Senate approved other language that would ban state funding and some federal funding from being used for "human cloning."

Actors in this scientifically complex debate define "human cloning" differently.

The U emphasizes that it has not and will not attempt to clone a human being, a process called reproductive cloning. Think Dolly the sheep, the first cloned mammal. "We have been crystal clear on this," said Dr. Aaron Friedman, the U's vice president for health sciences and medical school dean.

Minnesota Citizens Concerned for Life's broader definition of "human cloning" also includes one kind of stem cell research called therapeutic cloning. In that process, a scientist would extract stem cells from a 5-day-old embryo and then destroy it in a test tube. This bill would ban that too.

When DFL lawmakers pushed Sen. Michelle Fischbach, R-Paynesville, the bill's author and Scott Fischbach's wife, to make it clear that her bill would also criminalize therapeutic cloning, she declined: "I think 'human cloning' is pretty clear," she said last week.

'A very loud message'

The U's Stem Cell Institute uses a variety of stem cells, including embryonic stem cells, to research treatments for diseases including Parkinson's, diabetes and heart disease. None of its 35 faculty members does therapeutic cloning now. They use embryonic stem cells copied from existing cell lines.

But "there are reasons why I might want to do it in the future," said Dr. John Wagner, clinical director of the Stem Cell Institute, who uses adult stem cells to treat a fatal skin condition in children. Therapeutic cloning offers the possibility of merging a patient's cells with embryonic cells, so there's less risk of rejection, he said.

"It's inconceivable for me to right now limit the types of stem cells I work with," he said.

The University of Minnesota has invested more than $30 million in the facilities, faculty and equipment for stem cell research, Friedman said. But if this bill becomes law, the loss could be greater, he said. Many U researchers also get grants in areas other than stem cell research, "but should they go, they take all of it."

Meri Firpo, an assistant professor in the Stem Cell Institute, first heard that Minnesota was considering a ban on cloning through a sudden burst of e-mails from colleagues across the country. Then, at meetings last week in Washington, D.C., she was asked by several people: "So, are you moving back to California?"

Firpo was born, raised and expected to conduct her career's research in California. She came to Minnesota in 2005 because "I thought that if we're going to cure diabetes, this is the place to do it."

Should Minnesota's bill pass, she's not so sure. California recently passed a set of laws banning reproductive cloning but specifically endorsing embryonic stem cell research.

"It sends a very loud message to the rest of the world that Minnesota is moving in the opposite direction scientifically," Firpo said.

Easy alternatives?

Minnesota Citizens Concerned for Life argues that scientists should abandon embryonic stem cells in favor of adult stem cells -- in particular, a process of reprogramming adult stem cells to mimic the flexible properties of their embryonic counterparts.

"In adult stem cell research, money is flowing like a river," Scott Fischbach said. "Money going into embryonic stem cell research is resulting in nothing but dead embryos."

But researchers argue that those methods are far from ready and might never work for certain diseases.

Firpo uses those reprogrammed adult stem cells for her diabetes research. Still, that research depends on embryonic stem cells for comparison: "It's not a separate technology."

Camille Nash of Edina worries about politicians making decisions about which methods to pursue. Nash's 22-year-old daughter was diagnosed with Type 1 diabetes when she was 12 years old. Nash promised her then that she would do everything she could to find a cure.

"I look to researchers and to doctors to find a cure or treatment that might make her life a little easier every day," said Nash, who works with the Juvenile Diabetes Research Foundation. "Therapeutic cloning might be the answer.

"Why would legislators think they know better?"

While the U is stuck here, Minnesota companies doing stem cell work can go elsewhere, said Wahlstrom of the BioBusiness Alliance. "These kinds of investments are not inexpensive," he said. "So if you're going to put money into research, where will you go? A place that says, 'Do it here'? Or a place that says 'Don't do it here?' "

Minnesota's economy is much more dependent on biosciences than other states, according to a recent report from the BioBusiness Alliance. "This means that Minnesota's future employment prospects are more dependent than most other states on what happens to its biobusiness sector," the report says.

But Rep. Bob Dettmer, R-Forest Lake, has said that those concerns are overblown and that several states and other countries have bans similar to the one he's proposed.

Other legislators disagree. "I was told by a Johns Hopkins doctor that in fact other countries are much farther ahead than we are" in stem cell research, said Sen. Terri Bonoff, DFL-Minnetonka. "From the financial aspect alone, having our university at a competitive disadvantage in this area is significant -- especially when we have stated that we have a commitment to identify the bioscience area as an area of growth. "This is the antithesis of that." Star Tribune

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