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Stem cells, cloning and the GOP

  • Article by: JOHN E. WAGNER
  • April 9, 2011 - 9:41 PM

Legislation to criminalize lifesaving work at the University of Minnesota is being rushed through the Legislature. While it's referred to as "the Human Cloning Prohibition Act," don't be fooled by the title.

First, it needs to be clear that the university does not, has not, and will not perform human reproductive cloning research. In fact, it isn't even possible to clone a human being, as human embryogenesis is far more complex than that of frogs and sheep.

But this bill is not just an attack on human reproductive cloning, it is a full-scale assault on stem cell research.

While we've heard about stem cells in amniotic fluid, fat or even baby teeth, we know that none are as powerful as the embryonic stem cells derived from a blastocyst the size of a human hair.

As the director of clinical research for the university's Stem Cell Institute and as a University of Minnesota physician who treats children with incurable diseases, I know personally the power of stem cells and how they revolutionize the practice of medicine -- because I've done it.

For this reason, I have been asked to testify or speak on the state of the science at the U.S. Senate, the National Academy of Sciences and the United Nations.

The pace of stem cell research is simply breathtaking. So, it is not surprising that three new clinical trials using embryonic stem cells have been approved by the FDA in the past few months, with others in the pipeline for spinal cord injury, diabetes, cancer, stroke and heart disease.

While my own work is focused on adult stem cells, there are three reasons why I care so strongly about embryonic stem cell research:

1) Cells from blastocysts continue to teach us how to make adult stem cells into more effective therapies.

2) Current methods of adult stem cell reprogramming require the introduction of genes that are far too risky for use in people.

3) New embryonic stem cell treatments are now in clinical trials.

For some, this research is controversial. While these cells are barely detectable to the naked eye, others see these cells as a baby -- even though a womb is required for that to happen. Yet polls have consistently shown that embryonic stem cell research is widely supported.

To be sure, greater public discourse is needed to understand the potential of human stem cell research.

To be sure, the public needs to understand the risks and benefits of embryonic stem cells as well as up-and-coming alternative strategies such as with reprogrammed adult stem cells that have substantial promise but are far from clinical testing.

The science is complicated. Unfortunately, our legislators want to decide the fate of stem cell research in Minnesota without hearing the truth on the state of the science.

Distracted by looming state budget cuts, far-away tsunamis and no-fly zones, news outlets have been all but deaf to this all-out attack on stem cells and research.

Let's be clear: The passage of this bill would affect you.

It would restrict your freedom to access life-saving therapies; it would prevent the creation of jobs emanating from regenerative-medicine-based industries, and it will send a clear message to the faculty and students of our university that we live in a hostile environment toward innovation and research emerging from the stem cell field.

If you care about this promising area of science, let your voice be heard now. Otherwise, the decision to stop this research may be made for you.

John E. Wagner is a professor of pediatrics, director of the Division of Hematology-Oncology and Blood and Marrow Transplantation, and codirector of the Center for Translational Medicine at the University of Minnesota.

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