The future of therapeutic cloning rests on shaky ground as legislators contemplate new laws that would make it a crime not only to clone human embryos, but to use any products derived from such cloning. As Robert P. Lanza, M.D., vice president of medical and scientific development at Advanced Cell Technology (ACT), told a Yale audience in May, “we could go to jail for 10 years and be fined $1 million if pending legislation is enacted.”

ACT hit the front pages late last year when it reported having cloned human embryos in hopes of harvesting stem cells for research, although the embryos grew for only a few hours to between four and six cells. The company has been at the forefront of research into technologies of genetic manipulation, restoring youth to aging cow cells, creating biodegradable scaffolding for replacement tissue and using animal cells to develop organs for xenotransplantation.

Yet research into such potential therapies is threatened, Lanza said at “The Future of Therapeutic Cloning,” a symposium sponsored by the Yale Bioethics Project. In his keynote talk, he said about 80,000 people are awaiting donor organs, yet only 20,000 will undergo transplants. “For many patients, their only hope of survival is the hope of getting a donor organ,” he said. “With the advent of cloning, we have a new technology at our disposal that might allow us to eliminate this problem of organ shortage as well as that of immunosuppressive therapy.”

The prospect of cloning human embryos to harvest their stem cells has been swept up in the ongoing national debate over abortion. Those stem cells can, theoretically, be prodded to differentiate into virtually any human tissue. But the embryos from which they are derived are destroyed in the process, an act anathema to abortion opponents. “There will never be federal money for this work,” Lanza told an audience in Luce Hall in May. “The debate now is whether they are going to let anyone do it.” Should the so-called Brownback Bill that has been pending before the Senate since the fall of 2001 be passed, Lanza said, cloning of human embryos for any purpose, reproductive or therapeutic, would become a crime.

After Lanza’s talk, two panels of Yale ethicists, physicians and lawyers discussed the social, medical and moral implications of cloning and stem cell research. Science is pitted against “very strongly felt moral and ethical feelings,” said panelist Myron Genel, M.D., professor of pediatrics. “The scientific community, at least reflected by statements of our most prestigious organizations, is virtually unanimous that this research should go on.”

Lanza noted that before ACT published its report of cloning a human embryo in November 2001, a poll found 90 percent of the public opposed to human cloning, both therapeutic and reproductive. “There was no distinction between the applications,” he said. But within two weeks a CNN/USA Today/Gallup poll reported that 54 percent of the public supported cloning for medical purposes. “At last people are starting to understand that there is the kind of cloning to make babies and the kind of cloning to treat human disease,” Lanza said.

“People have different opinions as to the moral value of this entity,” said Lanza, referring to cloned embryos. “This isn’t an academic question. There are literally tens of millions of people out there who could benefit.”