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Small Biotech Company Sparks Controversy in Cloning Debate

By Rick Weiss
The Washington Post

Scientists, ethicists and federal regulators Thursday scrambled to sort out the many controversial issues raised by a small biotechnology company's announcement that it had used cloning techniques to create an embryo out of human and cow cells.

The work, conducted in 1995 and 1996 at Advanced Cell Technology of Worcester, Mass., but not made public until Thursday, was part of an effort to make medically useful tissues but also appears to be the closest that anyone has come to cloning a human being.

Among the many questions raised by the revelation was whether the research broke a ban on the use of federal funds for embryo research; whether it bypassed Food and Drug Administration rules on research; and how the work passed muster with the ethics review board at the University of Massachusetts in Amherst, where the company-supported work was done.

Those and other uncertainties led several experts Thursday to call upon Congress and the White House to clarify the regulatory framework within which human embryo research and other high-tech human studies are conducted.

"We will be contacting the White House today to ask that the President have the National Bioethics Advisory Commission examine these issues," said Carl Feldbaum, president of the Biotechnology Industry Association.

The Worcester company produced one cloned human embryo - perhaps the first ever made - and performed the unprecedented cross-species hybridization of a human cell and a cow egg.

Michael West, president of the company, said in an interview that although the technique was very similar to that used to clone Dolly the sheep, he had no intention of cloning adult humans. Rather, the project's goal was to grow replacement cells and tissues for transplantion into people with diseases.

West said he had recently reopened the files on the dormant experiment and concluded that it was largely successful. He was publicizing the findings, he said, because the company had the moral responsibility to get feedback from the public before going any further.

Several critics, however, said they suspected the company had made a business decision to ride a new wave of interest in cultured embryonic cells.