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Archive for Monday, March 27, 2006

Analysis: Human cloning emerging as another hot-button issue

March 27, 2006

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— In Greek mythology, a chimera is a fire-breathing beast with a lion's head, a goat's body and a serpent's tail.

For Kansas legislators, a chimera (pronounced ky-MEER-uh) is something else, equally repulsive to some of them. It's a human-animal hybrid, either a cell or an embryo.

Chimeras are part of a larger debate over embryonic stem cell research and human cloning. The thought of all three inspired conservative legislators last week to offer various proposals.

Legislators didn't start worrying seriously about cloning and related issues until the latest millennium arrived, and their interest has been sporadic. But the subjects inspire the same passion - and pit some of the same people against each other - as abortion.

"The issue is one that really poses some extraordinary ethical questions," Sen. Tim Huelskamp, R-Fowler, said during a Senate debate on his proposal to ban taxpayer-funded research with embryonic stem cells.

Huelskamp attempted to amend his proposal Wednesday to an $11.7 billion state budget for the fiscal year beginning July 1. His effort failed after some senators argued they didn't know enough about the science involved.

The next day, Rep. Mary Pilcher Cook, R-Shawnee, won approval of a proposal that encourages research with adult stem cells or umbilical cord blood, viewed as alternatives to using embryonic stem cells. But she failed the next day to add a proposal to make it a felony to create or attempt to create human-animal hybrids.

Both Huelskamp and Pilcher Cook are stalwart abortion opponents, and their ideas have the support of Kansans for Life, the state's largest anti-abortion group.

And such proposals worry other legislators, who fear anti-cloning legislation could be written so broadly as to damage what state officials hope is a fledgling biosciences industry in the Kansas City area.

Two years ago, the state created the Kansas Bioscience Authority to lead efforts to recruit promising scholars and leading researchers. The authority also can issue bonds to finance the development of research centers and provide financial help to fledgling companies.

"There is considerable interest and considerable hope being pinned on the research into the life sciences," said Senate Majority Leader Derek Schmidt, R-Independence.

Debate not new

Stem cell and cloning issues aren't new this year, of course, because President Bush wrestled with them early in his first term.

The House approved bans on human cloning research in 2001 and 2002 at the urging of Pilcher Cook. Atty. Gen. Phill Kline raised cloning as an issue during his GOP primary race in 2002. Pilcher Cook backed another cloning ban last year.

There appears to be a broad legislative consensus that cloning human beings is abhorrent. Its immorality is such a given that people involved in the debate don't usually bother to explain why.

Thus, the fight is over what constitutes cloning and a process known as somatic cell nuclear transfer.

Researchers replace the nucleus of an unfertilized human egg with the nucleus of another cell, stimulate growth in a lab dish and harvest the resulting stem cells and destroy what's left. Stem cells form early in an embryo's development and can mature into various cells to form organs and other body parts.

Supporters of such research argue that it's not cloning because it cannot result in the birth of a baby. Some also contend there's a distinction between using cloning to create a baby and using cloning to create a mass of cells that can be used for medical treatments.

Critics of the research argue that the process represents cloning, because an egg with 23 human chromosomes ends up with the full contingent of 46. (Normally, the other half is supplied by the sperm.)

They also argue that whatever its future, what emerges from somatic cell nuclear transfer is an embryo, making it an individual.

There's also a passionate debate about whether embryonic stem cell research has much promise, with critics saying repeatedly that the use of adult stem cells or umbilical cord blood already is providing cures.

An emerging issue

Opponents of embryonic stem cell research also see chimeras as an emerging issue. Last year, the National Academies of Sciences issued guidelines on research that involves mixing human and nonhuman genetic material.

In December, scientists in California announced they'd created mice with a trace of human brain cells. Scientists also have created pigs with human blood.

In the case of the mice with human brain cells, the goal was to allow more realistic models of disorders such as Parkinson's. Scientists also defend such research as necessary in developing experimental drugs.

Pilcher Cook's ban on creating chimeras would have covered such research, making it punishable by up to five years and one month in prison and a fine of $1 million. She contends Kansans would oppose such research in their state.

"We're going down a path where the public needs to have input," Pilcher Cook said.

However new and novel it seems, the debate over chimeras, cloning and stem cells has its familiar elements, not the least of which is the moral certainty and fervor brought to the debate.

And it's likely that those topics will become perennial ones for legislators, just as abortion has.

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