JUST LAST YEAR, FEDERAL LEGISLATION BANNING human cloning seemed like a shoo-in. The public was reeling from magazine headlines about a cloned sheep named Dolly; a national ethics commission recommended a three- to five-year moratorium on human cloning research; and President Clinton, in sync with the Religious Right, called for a ban.

Curiously, a bipartisan campaign to outlaw the new sci-fi reality died in Congress in February 1998, and remains on the back burner. What the heck is the pro-cloning contingent, and why are they so powerful?

They're called BIO--the Biotechnology Industry Organization--and last week they held their annual trade fair, BIO '99, right here in Seattle at the convention center. The conference--the biggest BIO event ever--drew a crowd of over 5,000 company reps, venture capitalists, and researchers who gleefully hyped transgenic corn on the cob, copyrighted genes, and cloned mice.

BIO is the lobbying arm of the $300 billion biotechnology and pharmaceutical industry. In recent years BIO been busy gathering patents on human genes like the human growth hormone gene and the ovarian cancer gene. Meanwhile, they're also researching "lifestyle" drugs, like a new diet pill on the way from Bristol-Myers Squibb, and--as the nearly 150 protesters who crashed the event claimed--positioning themselves to control the food supply with patents on bio-engineered food.

According to disclosure reports from last year (the most recent available), BIO and its corporate membership--which includes industry behemoths Eli Lilly, Pfizer, and Merck, as well as lesser-known companies like Genzyme, Xoma Corp., and Digital Gene Technologies--spent over $23 million on lobbying during the first half of 1998. (This wining-and-dining money does not include the pharmaceutical industry's direct campaign contributions to federal candidates, which topped $4 million in 1997-98.)

For the most part, BIO's legislative priorities are predictable. They're against the current move in Congress to put price controls on pharmaceuticals for Medicare beneficiaries, for example. More interesting is BIO's opposition to an outright ban on human cloning.

"No one is in favor of making a carbon copy of a person," researcher Ian Wilmut told The Stranger after the Wednesday afternoon symposium on ethics. Wilmut, you may remember, is the owl-faced scientist who brought us Dolly the cloned sheep. But he makes it clear that the BIO industry is reluctant to put on the brakes: "We need to consider the different uses of human cells and cloning technology." Wilmut, whose Scottish company was recently bought out by California-based Geron, says he's currently working on cloning pigs.

BIO spelled out its objections to the cloning ban in an eight-point position paper, and in a 1997 letter to President Clinton. The BIO chairman at the time, Henri Termeer, of drug manufacturer Genzyme, wrote that while he supported a ban on cloning entire human beings, "there is... valuable research into cloning human cells, organs, and other tissues.... This avenue of study could provide profound new insights into how genes control human development. These fundamental insights, in the decades ahead, will provide the basis for even greater biomedical advances in the service of humanity.... Accordingly, we ask you to oppose, as we do, any hastily drafted laws to ban the cloning of human beings, that may, however well intentioned, inadvertently also ban this valuable research."

Some of this research is happening in Washington state--in Seattle, even. Statewide, nearly 13,000 people work for the 120-plus biotech companies located here. Seattle's largest biotech firm is BIO member Immunex. While Immunex flatly opposes human cloning, spokesperson Cathy Keck Anderson says her company does clone human genes.

If, as a slew of recent magazine articles predicts, biotechnology will shape the next century the way computers and electronics shaped this one, it would be wise to keep an eye on BIO and its gene tinkering.

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