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Published: Thursday, 10/7/2004

Good-bye Dolly, hello research

THE scientist who made headlines in 1996 by cloning Dolly - that wolf in sheep's clothing - is back in the news with a request to the British government for permission to clone human embryos.

But it's not what you think.

Ian Wilmut, of Scotland's Roslin Institute, wants to use cells from patients with motor neuron diseases (MNDs) to make embryos that are exact genetic copies of the individuals. MNDs are a group of rare, incurable disorders that affect the nerves and muscles. Mr. Wilmut would use technology similar to the procedures that his research team employed to clone Dolly the sheep, the world's first mammal cloned from an adult cell.

But Mr. Wilmut doesn't want to implant those embryos into women and produce cloned babies. Instead, he would allow the embryos to develop for about six days to a stage smaller than the period at the end of this sentence - those mother cells capable of growing into heart, skin, nerve, and other kinds of body tissue.

Mr. Wilmut's team would use stem cells to study MNDs, with the ultimate goal of using those cells to grow new nerve cells and repair the damage in patients with MND. It's called "therapeutic" cloning, in contrast to the "reproductive" cloning that would create full-grown babies.

Great Britain has banned creation of cloned babies, but allows therapeutic cloning under a strict set of regulations that include getting an official "license" for the research. The government granted its first therapeutic cloning license in August to scientists seeking a treatment for Alzheimer's disease and Parkinson's disease.

Dolly really was a wolf in sheep's clothing. Although Dolly appeared to be just a warm and cuddly animal, she triggered a frenzy of concern about the ethical and religious implications of cloning. Some worried about the supposedly imminent use of cloning to make carbon copies of human beings. Religious and right-to-life groups worried that it would lead to large-scale production of human embryos, with many destroyed.

Human cloning turned out to be fraught with peril, including an unacceptably high risk of producing individuals with a variety of defects. Dolly herself died last year, apparently because of such problems.

The controversy over human cloning has intensified, however, because cloning can produce stem cells like those planned for the British research. Harvesting those cells, of course, means destroying human embryos, which right-to-life and other groups strongly oppose.

President Bush in 2001 imposed restrictions on federal funding for stem-cell research. Scientists fear it will shift the center of this extraordinarily promising field overseas. The moves by Mr. Wilmut and other British scientists suggest the shift is under way. It could leave the United States behind in the race to develop new treatments based on stem cells.

America's stem-cell policy has become an issue in the presidential election, with John Kerry promising to reverse the Bush policy if he is elected. If re-elected, Mr. Bush should do the same.

Stem-cell research holds promise for eventually helping millions of people with incurable diseases. The federal government should not muddle in science in ways that sacrifice those people, or the nation's lead in biomedical research.

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