U researchers worried about cloning bans

University stem cell research may be affected by two new funding bills.

Kyle Potter

Two funding bills passed in the state Legislature this week have University of Minnesota researchers worried about the future of stem cell research in the state.
Those bills include prohibitions on human cloning, but the language of the bans also outlaws a technique used to create embryonic stem cells.
Sandwiched into the SenateâÄôs health and human services funding bill is an amendment that bans the use of somatic cell nuclear transfer (SCNT). Members of the Senate voted to pass the bill Wednesday night.
The state House of Representatives and Senate passed higher education bills Tuesday that include bans on the use of state and federal funds for SCNT.
In a letter to state Republican leaders, Gov. Mark Dayton promised to veto any funding bill that includes policy measures.
If he rejects those items and the bills containing them have to be returned for separate passage, Dayton wrote that âÄúthose delays will be the LegislatureâÄôs responsibility, not mine.âÄù
Sen. John Marty, DFL-Roseville, said the movementâÄôs supporters are trying to curb embryonic stem cell research, hiding their effort behind the curtain of a human cloning ban.
Marty tried unsuccessfully to amend the bill to exempt SCNT use for research into cures for diseases like ParkinsonâÄôs, AlzheimerâÄôs and cancer.
In SCNT, DNA from a patientâÄôs cell is implanted into an unfertilized egg. About five days later that egg will develop into a ball of cells called a blastocyst. Part of the blastocyst is then removed in order to grow embryonic stem cells.
ItâÄôs the first step in the cloning of a human, called âÄúreproductive cloning.âÄù The procedure was used to clone a sheep named Dolly in 1996 but has not been successfully performed to clone a human.
Dr. Meri Firpo said she and her colleagues at the UniversityâÄôs Stem Cell Institute would wholeheartedly support the bills if they only restricted reproductive cloning.
But if signed into law, the ban would outlaw using SCNT for medical purposes, or âÄútherapeutic cloning.âÄù
Researchers like Firpo are concerned that a ban will close an avenue of research that could be important in the future, particularly in her work to cure diabetes.
Researchers at SCI arenâÄôt using stem cells from SCNT today, Firpo said, but the procedure is particularly valuable because it creates cells that genetically are nearly identical to those of the patient, thereby decreasing the chance of rejection.
âÄúWeâÄôre talking about less than 100 cells âÄî weâÄôre not talking about a fully formed human fetus,âÄù Firpo said of embryos cultivated for therapeutic cloning.
But to Minnesota Citizens Concerned for Life âÄî one of the chief supporters of the ban âÄî cloning is cloning, no matter the purpose or when the embryo is destroyed.
âÄúWe donâÄôt believe that human life should be manufactured and destroyed for the possible benefit of others,âÄù MCCL spokesman Bill Poehler said.
The group supports research using adult stem cells âÄî typically harvested from the umbilical cord without harming a newborn âÄî because it doesnâÄôt require the destruction of an embryo, Poehler said.
If adult stem cells or other cell types prove unsuccessful in FirpoâÄôs search for a diabetes cure, SCNT may be the next logical step. âÄúThe technology of SCNT may be very important for saving lives,âÄù she said.
âÄòPeople are not going to come hereâÄô
As soon as the cloning bill debate fired up in Minnesota, the poaching began, Firpo said.
Research institutions across the country began reaching out to personnel at the SCI to see if theyâÄôd be interested in relocating to a friendlier research environment.
A ban on SCNT would âÄúput a big stamp of âÄòNot WelcomeâÄô on top of the state of Minnesota for life sciences,âÄù said Mary Koppel, spokeswoman for the UniversityâÄôs Academic Health Center.
The University has invested about $30 million into stem cell research, facilities and faculty, Koppel said, not including grant dollars lost if some SCI faculty members leave.
In the competitive world of medical research, itâÄôs no surprise to Koppel that researchers might turn away from Minnesota in favor of a state with fewer restrictions.
âÄúIf this is the type of turn that this University is going to have to take âĦ then people are not going to come here,âÄù Firpo said. âÄúAnd people who are here are being recruited to go to other states.âÄù