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Bill banning human cloning rankles researchers, bio-business leaders

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Payton then and now
These two photos show the difference in 5-year-old Payton Thorton's skin from August 2010 (left) and on Dec. 21, 2010 (right) after receiving a stem cell treatment that Dr. John Wagner at the U of M helped develop. Wagner fears a new bill banning human cloning will make his colleagues' work illegal.
MPR File Photos/Nikki Tundel

Some stem cell researchers and bio-business leaders are urging lawmakers to kill a proposed bill that would ban human cloning in Minnesota.

They say the legislation could have a chilling effect on embryonic stem cell research at the University of Minnesota, and on potential business investment in the state.

Supporters of the bill say it focuses solely on the issue of human cloning and doesn't affect any research that isn't already illegal in the state.

But Dr. John Wagner, a University of Minnesota researcher who uses human stem cells to treat a rare, fatal skin condition in children, fears the new cloning bill will make his colleagues' work illegal.

The cells Wagner uses are derived from adults. But he said embryonic stem cell research performed by some of his colleagues contributes greatly to his development of new therapies. 

"Human cloning should be prohibited. Everyone is in complete agreement with that," Wagner said. "However, there is language in here that could be construed that this is also prohibiting embryonic stem cell research. And that's the part that I think we need to make very clear."   

Wagner is most concerned about a phrase in the bill that appears to restrict research used to create new tissue and organs. Some of Wagner's colleagues are using adult stem cells to try to create new organs like hearts and lungs. They may one day want to use embryonic stem cells. Another of Wagner's colleagues is already using embryonic stem cells as part of her diabetes research. 

"What is the intent of that phrase?" he asked. "Is it really going down the path of just restricting research on cloning techniques? Or, is it really going beyond that and actually trying to move into the areas of embryonic stem cell research?"

The bill's author, State Sen. Michelle Fischbach, R-Paynesville, told MPR News this week that it does not aim to shut down legitimate stem cell research. She said the bill only bans human cloning. 

"We are very specific about that it points directly to human cloning and there's, like I said, clarification language so that it doesn't include other things," Fischbach said.

Members of Minnesota Citizens Concerned for Life (MCCL), which is also backing the legislation, say they too are only interested in restricting human cloning. 

But MCCL Executive Director Scott Fischbach, who is married to Rep. Michelle Fischbach, adds that it's not necessary to put additional restrictions on embryonic stem cell research.

"Embryonic stem cell research actually has been illegal in Minnesota because of the 1973 Human Conceptus law," he said. "So I hope that the University of Minnesota isn't breaking the law. But the Human Conceptus law is very specific, it's very direct that no experimentation, no research can be done on any Human Conceptus in our state." 

Scott Fischbach said Minnesota researchers are only allowed to work with federally funded stem cell lines that have already been created from destroyed embryos. He said scientists in the state can't destroy new embryos to create new stem cell lines. 

Wagner said the university has avoided conflict with Minnesota law by acquiring embryonic material from out of state fertility clinics. 

University officials say their research practices have been reviewed by the Attorney General's office numerous times in the past and found to be in compliance with state law.

Mary Koppel, assistant vice president of the university's Academic Health Center, said officials there support embryonic stem cell research because it could lead to the next big scientific breakthrough. But she said the constant legislative scrutiny is starting to wear on researchers.

"There are other parts of the country that are very open to this kind of research," Koppel said. "There are actually other places that are already beginning to make phone calls to some of our researchers. You know, understand that the top level scientists, like some of those that we've recruited to Minnesota, they can move. And they will move." 

Some businesses leaders also worry the legislation will scare off biomedical research ventures.

Dale Wahlstrom, CEO of the BioBusiness Alliance of Minnesota, said one section of the bill that prohibits shipping or receiving products containing a certain type of cell that can be used for cloning. But Walstrom said that cell can also be used to develop therapies to treat disease. 

"I can't think of one business person who won't look at that and think, 'Oh, they're referencing specifically somatic cells,'" he said. "What does that really mean? How broadly can that be applied?"

The bill was approved by a Senate committee Thursday and is continuing to move through the Legislature.