Advanced Cell Technology (ACT), the most infamous human-cloning company in the world, scored another in a series of media coups last month when the January 2004 Wired published an “inside story of a human cloning experiment.” The article made international headlines by announcing the creation of the first human cloned embryos capable of yielding embryonic stem cells for use in medical research–an assertion ACT CEO Michael West subsequently refused to confirm, and which has yet to be proved through peer review in a respected science journal.
This wasn’t the first of ACT’s supposed cloning breakthroughs to gain widespread attention after provocative reports in the popular media. Indeed, the company came to the world’s attention in December 2001 when U.S. News and World Report published a fawning piece, “The First Human Clone,” which reported that ACT researchers had successfully created the first cloned embryos.
That boast turned out to be premature, but no matter. In June 2002, another journalist “granted rare access to the labs of Advanced Cell Technology” published “Cloning Trevor” in The Atlantic Monthly, extolling therapeutic cloning as “an incredible gift to mankind” that could lead to “radical new [medical] cures.” This piece, as did the others generated by ACT’s public-relations campaign, furthered the company’s never-ending quest for investment capital. But looking back, it also seems to have been the opening salvo in Big Biotech’s effort–now gaining steam throughout the country–to open the spigots of taxpayer funding to support companies like ACT and university life-science centers engaged in human-cloning research. There is a “broad consensus in the scientific community,” the Monthly’s Kayla Dunn wrote, “that therapeutic-cloning research merits significant exploration, and that real progress is likely only with government funding and support.”
But isn’t the biotech industry already rolling in dough? Yes and no. In recent years venture capitalists have invested billions in the biotechnology industry. But little of this influx has reached companies involved in controversial cloning research. There are abundant reasons for investor caution:
‐ Even if human cloning can be accomplished scientifically (which is no sure thing), it will take many years for the technology to become usable as a medical product. In the meantime, cloning research is a black hole, insatiably sucking investments in but yielding no returns.
‐ Even if biotechnologists succeed in creating reliable human-cloning techniques, the companies will have to obtain patents and the approval of the FDA before attempting therapeutic cloning in humans. Given the safety problems associated with embryonic stem cells in animal studies that would not be remedied through cloning (e.g., tumor formation), this would probably take many years, and even more dollars.
‐ Human cloning is explosively controversial. Although it is currently stalled in the United States Senate, cloning opponents remain adamant that human somatic-cell nuclear-transfer (SCNT) cloning be outlawed. Even though this effort has not yet succeeded, it has apparently had a devastating impact on the ability of cloning companies to obtain investments. As Michael West told The Washington Monthly in 2002, “Raising money is difficult when Congress is trying to criminalize your business.”
‐ The Omnibus Spending Bill that just passed Congress outlaws the patenting of human life for at least the next year. Once such provisions get into omnibus bills, they tend to stay there indefinitely. Therapeutic cloning cannot proceed profitably without patents.
‐ Adult stem-cell and associated regenerative medical approaches are moving forward at a tremendous pace. Indeed, in some cases, human patients have already been successfully treated with their own cells and tissues in early human trials. If this pattern holds, companies pursuing these noncontroversial technologies may soon begin to turn profits from this less hotly contested area of biotechnological research.
As a consequence of these and other factors, biotechnology industrialists and university researchers who currently lack the resources to pursue human cloning are now looking for public funding to finance their work. To this end, pro-cloning types have launched a political campaign aimed at gaining access to public coffers.
This important story remains under the somnolent establishment media’s radar. But for those paying attention, a clever three-tiered strategy has come clearly into view:
‐ Blur the Distinction Between Embryonic Stem-Cell Research (ESCR) and SCNT: Remember when, in the spring of 2001, President Bush was being pressured by the biotechnology industry and its supporters to fully fund ESCR? At that time, research advocates assured a leery nation that they only wanted federal funding for stem-cell research using embryos “in excess of need” from IVF infertility treatments, embryos that were going to be discarded anyway. Never, they solemnly assured us, would they ever countenance the creation of human embryos solely for research.
That was then. This is now. Today, the biotech party line is that SCNT, when not undertaken to bring a cloned baby to birth, is ESCR. Thus, when opponents of human cloning moved legislatively to outlaw all human SCNT in Congress, Big Biotech’s supporters in the Senate introduced the Hatch/Feinstein Bill as a countermeasure.
Hatch/Feinstein advertises itself falsely as the “Human Cloning Ban and Stem Cell Research Protection Act.” In reality, it would actually explicitly legalize SCNT as a form of embryonic stem-cell research. This is important because all major Democratic candidates for president have promised to rescind President Bush’s August 2001 order limiting federal funding of ESCR to existing stem-cell lines. This might not even require a new law: A President Kerry or Dean could simply decide via executive order that SCNT is ESCR, and open the research to full federal funding of both.
‐ Pass State Laws Defining SCNT as a form of ESCR: Concurrently with the Hatch/Feinstein holding action at the federal level, the once-clear distinction between ESCR and SCNT is systematically being eliminated at the state level. Two years ago, California passed a law explicitly approving SCNT as part of a broad ESCR authorization. This year, New Jersey followed suit, enacting a law so radical that it permits the gestation of cloned human fetuses through the ninth month. Similar bills are pending in Maryland and Delaware.
The strategy here is obvious: Once a handful of states pass these Big Biotech-spawned laws, they will then be touted as of the “will of the people.” Moreover, cloning advocates will argue, banning SCNT at the federal level would interfere with “states’ rights.” This bottom-up approach might even pave the way for the passage of Hatch/Feinstein, or failing that, be used to justify an executive order permitting federal funding of SCNT to level the playing field throughout the nation.
‐ Obtain State Funding Pending a Change in Administration: Within a week after New Jersey’s cloning license went into effect, biotech boosters began complaining about a lack of state funding. New Jersey’s budget is deeply in the red, so that appears unlikely in the near term. Still, Ira Black, chairman of the department of neurosciences at the Robert Wood Johnson Medical School, advocated in the Trenton Times that funds from “existing state commissions, such as the one dedicated to spinal cord research,” should be diverted to pay for experimental ESCR and SCNT.
California’s law explicitly legalizing SCNT already authorizes state funding for the research. However, given the state’s catastrophic budget deficit, this has been about as meaningful as the impecunious debtor assuring his creditor that the check is in the mail. Now, however, cloning supporters hope to persuade California’s voters to borrow $3 billion over ten years to fund ESCR and SCNT research. Should “The California Stem Research and Cures Act” qualify for the ballot and pass in November, it would be one of history’s most audacious special-interest money grabs. Regardless of the economy, the state would be required by law to spend $295 million per year on stem-cell research.
The sheer outrageousness of all this would be funny if it were not so alarming. Not only does Big Biotech covet a legal license to engage in human cloning–not only is it reducing nascent human life to the status of a mere thing to be harvested, commoditized, and sold in the pursuit of vast profits (the proposed California initiative actually refers to human embryos as “products”)–it wants you to pay for that privilege.