Biotech executives call 'anti-cloning' bills anti-business

Opponents say 'ambiguous' anti-cloning bills would drive biotech research to other states.

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Doug Kohrs, Tornier CEO

Doug Kohrs, CEO of a globe-spanning joint-implant company that employs 800 people, has a problem with the so-called "anti-cloning" bills that are being advanced in the Minnesota Legislature by the Republican majority.

Kohrs, a Republican, calls the bills "anti-business."

"I'm concerned about the ambiguous language in the bill. This whole thing started as a way to prevent reproductive cloning. I agree that reproductive cloning is not appropriate under any circumstance. But I'm concerned the same bill could also ban therapeutic stem-cell research ... potential cures for Alzheimer's, diabetes or even certain cancers."

Kohrs is chief executive of Tornier Inc. and a biomedical engineer who has helped create hundreds of local jobs at three companies over 20 years.

The Republican stance appears to be: "'We are pro-business and selectively anti-science,'" said Kohrs. "I have never found this combination to work in a job-creating environment."

The bill's advocates say it would still allow stem-cell research that does not rely on destruction of embryos, including adult stem cells. Opponents say the bill's language -- banning "human cloning" -- is purposely deceptive but that its message is clear: Minnesota opposes cutting-edge research.

Kohrs has acquired a biologics company that develops tissues to augment healing, including a California research lab of 12 scientists who have produced a promising tendon-like product.

"I would one day like to move that research office to Minnesota to join the rest of our U.S. operations," he said. "But this proposed bill makes me nervous about the future of biologic research in Minnesota."

Kohrs is among the biomedical executives and scientists who say reproductive cloning is wrong. They also are speaking out against the bill, strongly backed by the state's "pro-life" movement, that they say is subject to wide legal interpretation and will chase researchers and business from Minnesota.

Scott Fischbach, who heads Minnesota Citizens Concerned for Life (MCCL), a driver behind the bills, said the academics and businesspeople are crying wolf.

"Not one thing they are doing today would be affected," Fischbach claimed. "The more they scream to the press that the sky is falling, the more the sky will fall on them. They are hurting themselves. The bill says researchers should not kill life to create it. There's nothing ambiguous about this.

"We're not focused on 12 jobs in California. I represent 70,000 Minnesota families, and they all work and play in Minnesota. Here in Minnesota, we respect life. We don't kill each other in pursuit of a dollar. The scientific research industry wants to do whatever it wants to do. They want no bounds."

Dale Wahlstrom, CEO of LifeScience Alley, disagrees. "Our member firms ... are not, have not and will not perform research to conduct human cloning." The trade association for the Minnesota medical technology community represents 600 firms and more 250,000 jobs.

However, Wahlstrom has warned legislators that the "ambiguously" written bill will have a "chilling effect on legitimate medical research that is not related to human cloning."

If passed, the bills, which have been inserted into the higher education bills in the House and Senate, will cause leading Minnesota scientists and development-stage companies to head for "states with a more stable and welcoming policy environment," Wahlstrom said.

Gov. Mark Dayton opposes the proposed legislation.

Sen. Michelle Fischbach, the Senate author and Scott Fischbach's spouse, said the legislation would prohibit human somatic cell nuclear transfer (SCNT), which makes an embryo, not stem cells.

"The proposed human cloning ban only addresses the initial creation of embryos, not stem cells or research with stem cells," she said in a statement.

Inhibiting other research

University of Minnesota researchers and the biobusiness community say Michelle Fischbach is wrong and that she and the MCCL through this legislation may inhibit promising research that has nothing to do with a fertilized human embryo.

Robert Cohen, CEO of Miromatrix, a development-stage company tied to University of Minnesota's regenerative-medicine research, said the legislation will make it "more difficult to stay in Minnesota and collaborate with the University of Minnesota."

Last week, Dr. Aaron Friedman, dean of the U's medical school, and Dr. Robert Rizza, head of research at the Mayo Clinic, joined several prominent researchers and business people in opposing the pending legislation, saying it goes well beyond any concern for human cloning.

They said the bill could be interpreted to "criminalize" certain regenerative medical research that has the potential to cure diseases such as diabetes.

Neal St. Anthony • 612-673-7144 • nstanthony@startribune.com

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