Thursday, February 07, 2008

Stem Cell Research: Effort to Limit Could Backfire

This is a statement I submitted to state senators, media, and interested parties on a proposal in the Nebraska Legislature regarding cloning and stem cell research. I apologize in advance for the inside-baseball nature of it. We'll make time for it this Saturday on Check with Chip.

I thought the meeting today (Feb. 6) with Speaker Flood was simply to brief him on the negotiations, so I did not attend. Greg Schleppenbach and I were going to seek a meeting with Sen. Lathrop to see if there was any further room for negotiation.

I learned this evening that Sen. Lathrop joined the meeting today and a bill apparently is moving out of the Judiciary Committee tomorrow.

I say, again, how grateful I am to Sen. Lathrop for his willingness to engage on this issue and try to find common ground. I understand that in the flow of negotiations you take an opportunity when it becomes available.

Apparently the window of opportunity for negotiation has closed, though, so on behalf of the Nebraska Coalition for Ethical Research I want to get this "on the record" so nobody is surprised. I feel obligated to do so because I left Sen. Lathrop with the impression that NCER supports his approach.

I am told that UNMC and several Judiciary Committee members on the other side of this issue have given a thumbs-up to the current proposal. That's because the current proposal could break embryo-destructive research wide open in Nebraska and could circumvent a ban on cloning.

The proposal that I saw for the first time yesterday afternoon (Feb. 5) was very different from the proposal to which I agreed conceptually on behalf of NCER in Sen. Engel's office Jan. 25. Gone were two key provisions: 1) freezing in place for Nebraska current federal guidelines on embryo-destructive research, and 2) prohibiting use of stem cells from embryos destroyed after Jan. 1, 2008.

The current version (at least what I have) allows embryo-destructive research to expand in Nebraska to whatever is NIH eligible -- which could be virtually unrestricted embryo-destructive research in 2009 given the way the presidential primaries are going.

The current version also could produce this headline in a newspaper: "Legislature Allows Private Cloning for Stem Cell Research."

Section 3 is an absolute ban on implanting cloned embryos. Section 7 bans destruction of embryos and creation of clones with state funds and facilities, but it's not absolute like the ban in Section 3.

To accede to the false distinction for purposes of explanation, it looks like there is an absolute ban on "reproductive" cloning, but not on "therapeutic" cloning. It's an implied endorsement of cloning humans and then killing them to get their stem cells for research if done in the private sector. It would be possible to set up something like the Stowers Institute in Kansas City and engage in clone-and-kill research.

Prior to his national championship game against Nebraska in the 1996 Fiesta Bowl, Florida coach Steve Spurrier was told that his spread formation on offense left his quarterback vulnerable to a blitz by an outside linebacker. "He ain't comin'," Spurrier replied. The questioner showed the open path to the QB from the place where Nebraska's OLB would line up. Spurrier insisted, "He ain't comin'!" Early in the game, Florida was backed up near its goal line and lined up in the spread. Nebraska OLB Jamel Williams blitzed and flattened the Florida QB in the end zone for a safety, and the rout was on.

If the answer to the concern about a private effort at clone-and-kill research is "they ain't comin'," I'm not sure that's enough. People in the field of biomedical research are telling me that it is a realistic scenario. There are deep pockets in Omaha and there is desire at UNMC.

As a state senator in 2001, I was told by UNMC that it wanted to preserve the right to use fetal tissue, but that it was not angling for embryonic stem cell research, and that cloning was completely out of the realm of possibility. In 2005, David Crouse told the Judiciary Committee that he looked forward to Nebraska being a place for clinical application of cloning and embryonic stem cell research. His presentation at the fall 2006 Mini Medical School emphasized the importance of cloning in embryo-destructive research. In the spring of 2007, Ron Withem gave nonchalant testimony about UNMC not having an interest in cloning, but wanting to keep the option open to avoid getting a negative reputation in research circles. But in the fall of 2007, UNMC was publicly bragging about its role in the cloned monkey project and called cloning a major factor in the advance of stem cell research.

They ain't comin' if a bill gives a green light to clone-and-kill in the private sector? If they ain't comin', then they won't mind making absolute that ban on destroying embryos and creating cloned embryos. If they ain't comin', then there's no problem with deleting Section 3 and amending Section 7 to simply make it unlawful in Nebraska to 1) do research that involves the destruction of human embryos, and 2) create a human embryo by somatic cell nuclear transfer. That would cover Sen. Lathrop's concern about addressing "reproductive" cloning and our concern about addressing "therapeutic" cloning.

I guess if you really want it airtight on "reproductive" cloning, you add language banning the importation of human embryos created by SCNT to negate the argument that someone could import a clone and implant it, which could happen even under Section 3. I don't think the heartburn over "reproductive" cloning is warranted because nobody is for it, but I suppose some nut could try to do it.

I'm not sure how to resolve the possibility -- the probability -- of expanding NIH guidelines. Even a comprehensive cloning ban in Nebraska could be rendered virtually toothless if stem cells from humans cloned and killed elsewhere become eligible for NIH funding.

One of the advantages of a federal system is that states can set their own standards in these areas. Or maybe the best course is to not weigh in at all on this aspect. We don't get our freeze or January 2008 deadline, but the other side does not get statutory language giving the Legislature's approval -- and by extension the approval of every group supporting the bill -- for potentially unrestricted embryonic stem cell research.

NCER has been saying all along that LB 700 has nothing to do with research involving existing embryos. But if the other side is going to insist on bringing expanded exploitation of existing embryos into the proposal, well, it's very hard for a research advocacy group that has insisted it's wrong to treat human embryos as raw material for medical experimentation to turn around and approve of a policy that could lead to open season on embryos.

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