Reprinted with permission
Sunday, February 1, 2004
2004 San Francisco Chronicle

Should Californians go billions deeper into debt to fund research into human cloning?

We are already so broke that it sounds like a ridiculous notion. But that is precisely what Big Biotech and the academic researchers, who would be the recipients of a 10-year, $3 billion-plus-interest bond proposal, want you to bankroll.

Toward that end, professional signature-gatherers will be appearing soon at a supermarket near you attempting to qualify the “California Stem Research and Cures Act” for this November’s ballot.

You will be told that signing the petition will help pave the way for new medical cures using embryonic stem cells. But the game that is really afoot in this borrow-and-research scheme is granting biotechnologists the “right” to conduct research into human cloning at taxpayer expense by authorizing researchers to use embryos “derived from somatic cell nuclear transfer” in their experiments. That is the same procedure used to create Dolly the cloned sheep.

This proposed initiative is part of a national campaign by Big Biotech to blur the distinction between stem-cell research using leftover in-vitro- fertilization embryos and experiments with tissues derived from human cloning.

Opinion polls show that most Americans oppose the latter endeavor. For example, a May 2002 Gallup Poll found that by 61 to 34 percent, Americans oppose the “cloning of human embryos for use in medical research” — one of the acts this initiative would finance. That is why pro-cloners have stopped using the C-word and now refer to experimental cloning as somatic cell nuclear transfer.

Billions in extra debt

The proposed initiative asserts that we should incur billions in extra debt because it is “unlikely” that stem-cell research will “receive timely or sufficient federal funding, unencumbered by limitations.” While adult stem- cell research would be technically eligible for federal funding, given that it faces no significant encumbrances, the primary purpose behind the initiative is clearly aimed at funding research into human cloning — currently ineligible for any federal funding — and embryonic stem-cell research, which can only receive financing for experiments on existing cell lines.

Yet, a review of the scientific literature demonstrates that adult stem- cell and related research is actually a more likely source of new medical cures in the quickest time. Indeed, the field has advanced tremendously in recent years, not only in animal studies but also in early human trials. For example:

Brain function in five human patients with advanced Parkinson’s disease was partially restored using a natural body chemical known as glial-derived neurotrophic factor. One year after the infusion of this chemical, all patients had clinical improvement of motor function and in the ability to perform activities of daily living.

In a California Parkinson’s experiment, a patient was treated with his own brain stem cells and appears to have experienced a substantial remission with no adverse side effects. One success does not a cure make, but further human trials in this technique are due to begin soon.

It now appears that stem cells taken from a patient’s own bone marrow or blood are able to restore cardiac function. In Michigan, 16-year-old Dimitri Bonnville, who was shot through the heart with a nail and suffered a heart attack, experienced marked improvement in his heart’s ability to pump blood after being treated with his own blood stem cells.

Harvard Medical School researchers reversed juvenile onset diabetes (type- 1) in mice by injecting into diabetic animals “precursor cells” taken from spleens of healthy mice. The cells transformed into insulin-producing pancreatic islet cells. The technique will begin human trials as soon as sufficient funding is available.

Spinal cords regenerated

Severed spinal cords in rats were regenerated using gene therapy to prevent the growth of scar tissue that inhibits nerve regeneration. The rats recovered the ability to walk within weeks of receiving the treatments. The next effort will be to try the technique with monkeys. If that succeeds, human trials would follow.

Adult stem cells in mice were able to cause myelination, thereby reversing some aspects of multiple sclerosis.

Neither embryonic stem cell nor cloning experiments have come close to this success rate. Moreover, embryonic stem cells cause tumors in animal studies. Not so with adult stem cells. Researchers also worry that embryonic stem cells could be rejected by the body’s autoimmune system, a problem that “therapeutic cloning” is supposed to overcome. This is not an issue with adult stem cells, since the patient’s own tissues become potent medicine.

The California Stem Cell Research and Cures Act would be bad law. Not only would it create a California mini-National Institutes of Health, but it would also use politics to skew state funding priorities toward approaches that may not be the most efficient or efficacious.

Approving the proposal would also be economic madness. Our state’s budget is being cut to the bone marrow. We can’t adequately fund our schools, provide proper health care for the poor, fix our roads or adequately prepare first responders in case of a terrorist attack. And it is going to get worse before it gets better. In March we will be asked to approve Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger’s $15 billion debt restructuring bond issue, and we will also soon be voting on a $12 billion school bond.

The last thing we need during this time of financial famine is a $3 billion pork-barrel project to fund scientifically problematic and morally controversial research into human cloning.

Oakland resident Wesley J. Smith is a senior fellow at the Discovery Institute and a special consultant to the Center for Bioethics and Culture.