Wednesday, December 21, 2011

University wins award for fending off human cloning limitations

The University of Minnesota has won a national award for its efforts to defeat legislation that would have prohibited human cloning for biomedical research (or for any other reason). On its website, the University boasts:
On October 4th the University of Minnesota Stem Cell Institute was awarded a prize for Public Advocacy at the World Stem Cell Summit, Pasadena, California.

The prize was in recognition of the role the Institute played in defeating legislative attempts in the State of Minnesota to ban somatic cell nuclear transfer: a technique used in certain types of stem cell research.

The prize was accepted by Stem Cell Institute Director, Dr. Jonathan Slack. He said "This is an award for the whole University of Minnesota. The Communications Office of the Academic Health Center did great work organizing the campaign, and there was good backing from the leadership of both the University and the Mayo Clinic. The role of patient advocacy organizations and the business community in Minnesota was also critical, and we are very grateful to them."
The University is referring to MCCL-backed legislation to prohibit the cloning of human organisms (via the cloning technique called somatic cell nuclear transfer, or SCNT), which easily passed the Minnesota Legislature this spring but was vetoed by Gov. Mark Dayton. (Also vetoed was legislation to continue an existing ban on state funding of human cloning.)

The University did indeed work vigorously against the proposed human cloning ban. But it did not do so admirably, honestly and ethically -- the way one would hope an important public institution would advocate for its views. Rather, it did so very dishonestly and apparently without shame. That sounds like hyperbole or wild political rhetoric, but it's not, as we've documented here repeatedly throughout the course of the debate.

For example, University researcher John Wagner claimed in a Star Tribune op-ed that legislation banning human cloning was "a full-scale assault on stem cell research" and would "criminalize lifesaving work at the University of Minnesota." But the bill would not have affected any stem cell research -- or any other current or pursued work -- at the University, as the University had admitted in testimony and even to the media. And to call the University's non-existent cloning work "lifesaving" is simply absurd, as anyone familiar with the failure to date of so-called "therapeutic" cloning knows. Never in his op-ed did Wagner explain what the bill actually did. He clearly led readers to believe it would prohibit existing embryonic stem cell research (it would not, as he elsewhere admitted). He never mentioned SCNT (cloning), the sole subject of the legislation.

In his op-ed and in a longer piece with his colleague Meri Firpo, Wagner carefully avoided using the correct scientific term for the entity from which embryonic stem cells are derived. (It's called a human embryo -- that is, a human organism at the embryonic stage of development.) The University misled regarding the nature of somatic cell nuclear transfer and cloning -- at least, those few times when it admitted that SCNT was involved. And never did the University offer a serious ethical justification for human cloning or embryo killing. That, I suppose, would first require being honest about the practice whose ethical status we are evaluating.

On its website today, the University makes some of the same obviously false statements, claiming that defeat of the bill preserved "lifesaving research." And in its announcement of the award for "public advocacy" (quoted above), the University says SCNT is "used in certain types of stem cell research," a misleading claim at best. The University is not pursuing SCNT, and stem cells have never been successfully derived from SCNT-produced human embryos -- though researchers recently derived (therapeutically useless) stem cells from abnormal cloned embryos produced using a modified SCNT process.

Jonathan Slack, the Stem Cell Institute director, said at a University event opposing the human cloning ban: "It isn't the business of legislators to decide what researchers can do." Arrogant. Ridiculous. Utterly thoughtless.

So how did the University win its award? Persistent deception of the taxpaying, University-supporting public in order to preserve the possibility of deciding at some point in the future to create cloned members of the human species to then kill by harvesting their useful parts, a practice that seems less and less to have any potential therapeutic value whatsoever. As the University boasts of an award for its slimy politics, no benefits of embryo-destructive cloning research are in sight.

In this regard, Minnesotans can only be ashamed and embarrassed of our state's flagship University.