Cloning Hype Offers False Hope

Sen. Sam Brownback, R-Kan., and lifestyle maven Martha Stewart have a common problem this week — fly-by-night medical researchers.

It's not too late for Sen. Brownback to learn from Ms. Stewart's misfortune.

Sen. Brownback wants to ban human cloning, including harvesting stems cells from cloned human embryos. Stem cells, in theory, can be grown into any cell or tissue of the body.

Medical researchers have convinced many in Congress, the media and public that cures for disease are just around the corner if embryonic stem cell research is permitted. It’s no surprise that support for the ban is difficult to develop.

This week, Sen. Brownback told fellow Republicans he hopes to attract support with a two-year moratorium rather than a permanent ban on cloning.

But pro-cloners soon mobilized Sen. Edward M. Kennedy, who responded, "A moratorium of a year or two may not seem like much to you and me, but it could mean the difference between life and death for a patient with Parkinson's disease, diabetes, cancer, or many other serious disorders."

I suspect Sen. Kennedy's suggestion of impending medical miracles will trump the moratorium gambit — but only because anti-cloners aren’t challenging pro-cloners' pie-in-the-sky promises. Such a challenge would make moral arguments against human cloning more persuasive.

Many among the public desperately await cures and treatments. Promises of around-the-corner successes are quite appealing. Reality, unfortunately, is quite different.

Treatments and cures resulting from embryonic stem cell research — even if it is allowed and fully funded — are not years, but probably decades away. That's if they're even possible.

A good example of the challenge of medical research is the cancer debacle. With several very limited exceptions, cancer research largely has failed despite decades of work costing more than $40 billion in taxpayer money and billions more in private funds.

Further, developing treatments and cures for cancer (involving the destruction or removal of malignant cells) conceptually is a much easier biological task than trying to create and control specialized cells from stem cells. Even if specialized cells could be created, the problem of immunologic rejection could be a showstopper.

The capital markets are waking up to the doubtful return on investment from stem cell and other similarly "promising" biotech research. Ernst and Young just reported the amount of money raised by the biotech industry is down 75 percent from 2000 to 2001 ($32.7 billion vs. $7.9 billion).

That's why stem cell researchers are so eager to have human embryo cloning sanctioned by the federal government. They need to replace rapidly vanishing private investment with public funds, hoping to get the same sort of free ride without accountability as cancer researchers have enjoyed since the 1970s.

Hello. If the future of such embryonic stem cell research is so bright, why are investors reluctant to put their money where Sen. Kennedy's mouth is?

So Sen. Brownback — are you paying attention? — the Achilles heel in the debate over human embryonic cloning ban is not the morality of the research; it’s the slim likelihood of success.

If Sen. Brownback needs a current example of how much hot air often is behind medical researchers, consider poor Martha Stewart.

Ms. Stewart invested in a company called ImClone, a company whose drug Erbitux was touted as a colon cancer treatment. Hype for Erbitux pushed the price of ImClone's stock as high as $72 per share in December, 2001.

The hype was so convincing that the normally well-grounded Wall Street Journal editorial page chastised the Food and Drug Administration for demanding proof the drug actually worked before approving it.

On Dec. 28, the FDA announced its rejection of the Erbitux application, sending ImClone's stock price spiraling down almost 90 percent.

Ms. Stewart, perhaps on a timely tip from ImClone CEO Sam Waksal, sold $175,000 worth of ImClone stock the day before the FDA announcement.

Waksal was arrested this week allegedly for illegally tipping people to sell ImClone stock ahead of the FDA announcement. Not only will Stewart face inquiry from the Securities and Exchange Commission, but her company's stock price slid on news of her potential involvement in the scandal.

All because yet another highly touted miracle cure wasn't.

It's not that we shouldn't fund medical research — we should, but privately. That way capital will flow toward research likely to pay off. Investors can hold researchers more accountable than taxpayers.

Martha Stewart no doubt now is quite attuned to the folly of medical research hype. If Sen. Brownback learned this same lesson, he might have a much easier time developing support against cloning.

Steven Milloy is the publisher of, an adjunct scholar at the Cato Institute and the author of Junk Science Judo: Self-defense Against Health Scares and Scams (Cato Institute, 2001).

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