Crumpling Tissues


Be more careful with tissue transplants, the General Accounting Office warned the Food and Drug Administration in a December 1997 report. The GAO looked at what it considers potentially hazardous gaps in the FDA's current regulation and inspection of human tissue transplants, including musculoskeletal tissue, skin, corneas, reproductive tissue, and peripheral and umbilical-cord blood stem cells.

The GAO stressed the dangers from "potential transmission of infectious diseases from donor to recipient" and "certain tissue-processing techniques that may affect the usefulness of tissues or leave them with harmful residue." It recommended more thorough registration of tissue banks and stricter reporting requirements for problems that arise from tissue transplantation.

As the GAO tells the FDA to be more diligent, elected officials seem poised to stymie a technology that holds great promise in enhancing the safety of tissue transplants: cloning. Rep. Vernon Ehlers (R-Mich.) and Sens. Kit Bond (R-Mo.) and Trent Lott (R-Miss.) have all proposed bills that would, as Michael West of Origen Therapeutics Inc. told the House Commerce Committee, "make it a crime to conduct research if it could possibly be related to the cloning of a human being even if it is not, in fact, conducted for that purpose."

Cloning research holds the promise of replicating, from your own adult cells, large amounts of specialized tissues you could use now or store for future transplant needs. Cloned tissue would be genetically identical to tissue your body produces through natural processes and could avoid many of the medical problems that arise from transplants. But an inchoate fear of "playing God" is leading the Washington establishment to hurriedly consider laws that could prevent such research from being done legally in this country.

The GAO report did not mention cloned tissues. But the Commerce Committee's February hearings included many representatives from the medical and biological research communities who urged Congress not to succumb to wild fears about cloning and ban potentially life-saving research.