WASHINGTON, D.C.--The cloning of an adult sheep by Scottish biologists was on every legislator's mind when Harold Varmus, director of the National Institutes of Health (NIH), appeared to defend his budget request on Capitol Hill today. And the first to ask Varmus for his views was Representative John Porter (R-IL), chair of the subcommittee that drafts NIH's appropriation. Porter, noting that many had been "shocked" by the news, asked if it was "valid science."
This was Varmus's cue for a well-rehearsed and elaborate answer. After recalling early attempts to clone frogs and describing how the Scots had overcome technical barriers to cloning mammals, Varmus declared that it was "only natural" that the public should speculate about the cloning of humans. But, he concluded, while this idea "makes for interesting movies," it amounts to "poor science and poor ethics."
Varmus pointed out that a special review group he created in 1994 to give advice on embryo research had already judged human cloning to be "repugnant"--a view he endorsed. He explained that "our sense of ourselves as human beings is connected to our diversity." Varmus asked the legislators to refrain from quick action, however, saying "I would be concerned about a rush to legislate" a prohibition on all cloning. Varmus pointed out that President Clinton had asked the National Bioethics Advisory Commission to take up the issue and recommend action. The sheep cloning might open up "a number of possible experimental routes" for medical research, he noted, such as providing new methods for producing human proteins, growing organs for transplantation, creating model organisms to study human diseases, and possibly reprogramming human cells for new uses. There are "many remarkable possibilities" that need to be explored, he said, suggesting that it would be a mistake to issue a blanket prohibition on cloning.