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Time to Educate, Not Legislate
Varmus Visits Hill To Address Questions on Cloning

By Carla Garnett

On the Front Page...
Recent discoveries in cloning technology present an opportunity to educate the public about a complex, but potentially invaluable scientific tool, said NIH director Dr. Harold Varmus during a Mar. 5 Capitol Hill hearing titled, "Biotechnology and the Ethics of Cloning: How Far Should We Go?" Legislation enacted too hastily on the issue could limit, delay or even prevent tremendously promising research that may one day benefit human health, he said.

"The way in which any bill that limits federal research funding is crafted can impede our ability to do many of the very things intended for scientific inquiry," he explained. "Unless a bill is written in a way that places a very tight fence around that which the public and Congress wants to forbid, there is the possibility that in closing off research related to unwanted goals you may also cut off research advances related to wanted goals." There is no need to act precipitously, Varmus stressed, "Human cloning is not going to happen overnight."

Since Feb. 24, when Scotland's Dolly (the sheep that is the first animal ever cloned from the nonreproductive cells of an adult mammal) was introduced to the world in media splendor, Western nations have been struggling to address the difficult legal, moral, ethical, religious and scientific questions the discovery evoked. Soon after the Scottish announcement, Norway's Parliament passed legislation that banned "cloning of humans and other highly developed organisms," according to ScienceNOW, the American Association for the Advancement of Science's online magazine. The Norwegian ban would have prevented the cloning of Dolly and could be the farthest reaching cloning ban on the books, the magazine reported. Britain and Germany had already outlawed all human cloning research, which many feel is the imminent next step after animal cloning. In the U.S., no such all-encompassing law exists, although several state legislatures such as New York had, as soon as 2 weeks after Dolly, introduced bills to curtail or outright ban all human cloning research. Federally, two U.S. legislators have already introduced bills in each chamber of Congress to limit aspects of human cloning. Currently no HHS funds can be used for human embryo research, including embryos derived from cloning, but U.S. private industry is not so impeded.

President Clinton, expanding the government ban on human cloning to the use of all federal funds and responding to public clamor, called on Mar. 4 for a 90-day voluntary moratorium on cloning humans by the private sector while his National Bioethics Advisory Commission (NBAC) "conducts a thorough review of the legal and the ethical issues raised by this new discovery." At the end of May, NBAC is expected to present its findings and recommend to the president possible actions to prevent the abuse of the technology.

In a move applauded equally by members of the scientific and legislative communities, Rep. Connie Morella (R-Md.), who chairs a House technology subcommittee, invited Varmus and four other science and science ethics experts to a hearing to respond to wide-ranging congressional questions on the topic.

"Animal cloning has the potential to immeasurably improve our human health condition with radical advances in medical research, the speeding up of new drugs, and the development of animal organs for human transplantation," Morella said, opening the heavily attended hearing. "Yet, perhaps no other science issue is as dramatically misunderstood and feared, since cloning comes saddled with lingering and troubling concerns about the very dimensions of our human existence...We must be careful not to outlaw or restrict potentially positive scientific developments with overly prescriptive legislation aimed at aspects of cloning that we don't support or condone such as human cloning."

The panel fielded queries on nearly everything from the prospect of diminished diversity due to the cloning of so-called superior animals to the possible end to endangered species. Gamely, Varmus and his colleagues on the panel -- Dr. Caird Rexroad of the Department of Agriculture, Dr. N. Susan Smith of the Oregon Regional Primate Research Center (which recently cloned monkeys using embryo cells), NBAC member Dr. Thomas Murray of Case Western Reserve University's Center for Biomedical Ethics, and Jim Geraghty of Genzyme Transgenics Corp. -- attempted to provide uncomplicated answers to the variety of questions, some technically complex, others philosophical, and some even humorous.

Was there any way the scientific community could have better prepared the public to address this and other future highly significant, multifaceted research breakthroughs? Morella asked. What's to stop some renegade scientist from flying to a remote island somewhere and replicating his or her rich patron? one congressman wanted to know. Given these uncharted and ultra-deep scientific waters the ability to clone animals now puts us in, another congresswoman wondered aloud, "Should we be legislating the acquisition of further knowledge or the application of it?" "Is there any way to clone a certain insect population and relocate it to another, less populated region?," inquired Rep. George E. Brown, Jr. (D-Calif.), who recalled that 20 years ago this month the impact of another hotly debated scientific topic -- recombinant DNA -- was being explained and explored with similar intensity within the confines of the House science committee.

Answers to the questions above -- not really, nothing, possibly neither, and perhaps -- underscored how much more must be learned about this burgeoning field. As a unit, panel members moved to reassure questioners. USDA's Rexroad, whose work involves biotechnology with farm animals to produce healthier and more valuable foods and animal products, and Geraghty, whose company does research using animal cloning techniques to develop potential therapies for human disease, said they are interested in Dolly only as a scientific tool to improve quality of life and human health, not as an avenue to human replication.

"We shouldn't underestimate the difficulty of this work and the limited number of people who can carry it out," said Varmus, explaining the requirements -- in terms of economic as well as human resources of knowledge, expertise and experience -- to set up a facility able to implement the cloning technique that gave birth to Dolly. And even then there is no guarantee of success, he continued, pointing out that only one attempt in hundreds at the Scottish lab produced a viable animal.

"In recent times," Varmus concluded, "DNA and the science of genetics have come to be, as seen by the public, somewhat over-determining who we are and how we behave. I think this offers us an opportunity to put it in a better perspective. It is a fantasy to think that somebody who has the same genes as you have, is you. I think those distinctions are things we can bring up in this debate that will make us respect life history as much as we respect our genes."

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