Chemical Eye on Scientific Freedom


CHEMICAL EYE ON SCIENTIFIC FREEDOMBy PRESTON MacDOUGALL

With President Bush's re-election, it is very likely that in the next session of Congress, Republican Senators could be voting on acceptable ways to mend a broken heart.

I am not referring to reaching out to disappointed Democrats, but rather to the debate on whether the U.S. government should ban embryonic stem-cell research, and its ultimate application in medicine - therapeutic cloning. As they consider the issue, I hope that everyone will weigh the words I recently saw carved in marble on the Thomas Jefferson memorial: "I have sworn upon the altar of God eternal hostility against every form of tyranny over the mind of man."

Considering the box office success and DVD sales of Star Wars Episode II: Attack of the Clones, I imagine that many listeners will picture Jango Fett "bubble boys" being grown for body parts when they hear "therapeutic cloning." Therapeutic cloning is nothing like that.

It involves taking the nucleus of an adult cell, with its genetic information intact, and transferring it into an unfertilized egg cell that has had its nucleus removed. That's it. If conditions are perfect, this cloned cell will begin to divide into numerous and potent stem-cells, which will eventually differentiate. By experimenting on such cells, scientists hope to understand the chemical triggers that direct stem-cells to become gangling brain cells, muscular heart cells or whatever cell type a patient requires for their potential therapy.

Legislation repeatedly introduced by Republican Senator Sam Brownback from Kansas, would ban therapeutic cloning, shutting the door on key areas of research that could help us better understand this chemical signaling.

Recent headlines, such as "Dolly creators want to test human embryos," have revealed that British researchers are forging ahead in regenerative medicine based on somatic cell nuclear transfer - in other words, therapeutic cloning.

Because the best remedy for your old and sick cells, will often be your young and healthy ones, these optimal therapies would require cloning. This is also why you should be concerned about what actions are taken by the U.S. Senate in the next session of Congress.

One irony is that the parent company for Dolly's creators is Geron Corporation, based in Menlo Park, California. For the past few years at MTSU, students in my Honors Chemistry class have watched a videotaped lecture by Dr. Calvin Harley, Geron's chief scientific officer, expounding on his company's very promising technologies.

Key research on therapeutic cloning would be banned in this country if the Senate passes the Brownback legislation, giving a competitive advantage to biotechnology in other countries. Reactions to the video revealed that many of my students would love to be involved in such leading-edge biomedical research - with its promise to improve the lives of so many people - without having to leave the country, or move to California where passage of Proposition 71 enshrines the right to perform such research in that state's constitution.

The United States has already lost one leading stem-cell researcher as a result of the cloning controversy. Dr. Roger Pederson, formerly of the University of California, San Francisco, has crossed the Atlantic in the reverse direction of the usual brain drain.

"I am not a hero leading the charge," he said. "I am just trying to get some work done. I am flowing like water towards an opportunity to do that without a lot of distractions."

Pederson's research, now being done in the Department of Surgery at Cambridge University, in England, has been cited as a hopeful seed for "wonder cures" for an array of illnesses from diabetes and strokes to incurable, degenerative diseases such as Parkinson's, Alzheimer's and multiple sclerosis. I do not believe that the desire to cure these dreaded diseases is any greater over there, but perhaps the probability will be if therapeutic cloning is banned in the United States.

We should remember that approximately 30 years ago, when the war against cancer was new, experiments were planned to introduce cancer-causing viral DNA into a bacterial cell. With appropriate concern about the long-term ramifications of taking this revolutionary step, objections were voiced by scientists, and this research was temporarily halted.

In February 1975, the Asilomar Conference was held in California to discuss the relevant issues. It was decided, by scientists, that recombinant DNA research should continue, but with appropriate safeguards and restrictions, mostly to do with containment. As a result, we now have a vital biotechnology industry, and a whole new paradigm for rationally attacking cancer and other deadly diseases with new drugs.

Fast-forward to the present. A prestigious committee of the National Academy of Sciences already has considered the ethical ramifications of therapeutic cloning. They found that cloning to reproduce humans is currently unsafe and should be illegal. But they also reported that somatic cell nuclear transfer has "considerable potential" and should be permitted. It would not be if the Senate passes the Brownback legislation, whether as a stand alone bill or as a moratorium buried in another piece of legislation.

Let's take Thomas Jefferson's words to heart and keep scientific freedom among the freedoms we hold dear in these United States.

Preston MacDougall, Public Relations Chair for the Nashville Section of the American Chemical Society, is a chemistry professor at Middle Tennessee State University.

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