Legislating science without scientists = confusion

It sounds like the Minnesota senate could use a little help from CIRM’s Stem Cell Basics as they debate a proposed ban on… well, they aren’t really sure what it’s on. Reproductive cloning? Therapeutic cloning? Stem cell research? 

(Hint, reproductive cloning creates a new human – CIRM, the California constitution and all states actively supporting stem cell research oppose reproductive cloning. Therapeutic cloning, if it ever works in humans, would provide an additional way of creating embryonic stem cells. These cells, contrary to some science fiction scenarios mentioned in a Minnesota Independent story, can not form a new person.)

Perhaps including scientists in the discussion would have allowed lawmakers to clear up this confusion.

The Minnesota Independent wrote about a Senate Higher Education Committee debate over an amendment proposed by Sen. Michelle Fischbach banning taxpayer funding for a technique called somatic cell nuclear transfer. The confusion comes over the fact that SCNT is the first step in reproductive cloning, and is also the first step in creating embryonic stem cells identical to the donor’s cells. So far, SCNT has been successful in a number of animals but has never worked in humans. (All human embryonic stem cells currently come from embryos left over after in vitro fertilization.)

The proposed ban would eliminate both uses of SCNT, and would prevent Minnesota scientists from using stem cells created via SCNT in other states. According to the Minnesota Independent, Sen. Kathy Sheran spoke up about confusing the two uses:

“I think we are really in danger of confusing the public about the difference between human cloning using stem cells for the creation of another human being and stem cells used for therapeutic purposes,” said Sheran. “They are very different and very separate, and this rolls them all in together and confuses the public into thinking this is all about human cloning when it isn’t.”

In a blog entry last week (Ban reproductive cloning not stem cell research), my colleague Geoff Lomax, who heads CIRM’s Standards Working Group, made what I thought was a great comparison between the SCNT debate and genetics. Genetic engineering has resulted in untold new drugs and disease discoveries. It also underlies the fear of genetic discrimination made famous in the movie GATTACA. Did we ban genetic engineering in order to prevent GATTACA? No, we enacted the Genetic Non-Discrimination Act to prevent such a scenario.

Lomax said:

By the same logic, we shouldn’t ban basic research due to unwarranted science fiction concerns over reproductive cloning.

Apparently the Minnesota lawmakers don’t agree. An attempt to explicitly ban reproductive cloning failed in favor of more general language encompassing both uses of SCNT.

For more information about SCNT, see the report from CIRM’s 2010 SCNT workshop.

– A.A.