U.S. Firm Clones Human Embryos
On Thursday, a small biotech company made controversial stem-cell research waves with an announcement that it has cloned human embryos using SCNT (somatic cell nuclear transfer). The research is published in the current issue of the scientific journal Stem Cells.
Stemagen CEO Samuel H. Wood, M.D., Ph.D., and donor of the cells from which the embryos were cloned, called the achievement "a critical milestone in the development of patient-specific embryonic stem cells for human therapeutic use, potentially including developing treatments for Parkinson's, Alzheimer's and other degenerative diseases."
The news met with praise on one side of the stem-cell fence and criticism on the other side. Proponents of stem-cell research look at the promise of creating embryonic stem cells that could be used to treat disease. Opponents are concerned scientists will open the door to cloned human beings.
The Stemagen Breakthrough
In the study, cloned blastocysts were successfully created from approximately 10 percent of all mature donated oocytes, an unexpectedly high rate given past research in this field.
According to Stemagen Chief Scientific Officer Andrew French, Ph.D., lead author on the paper, Development of Human Cloned Blastocysts Following SCNT with Adult Fibroblasts, Stemagen's announcement is not merely a technical improvement on previous research.
"No other scientific group has documented the cloning of an adult human cell, much less been able to grow it to the blastocyst stage -- the stage at which it is the adult donor cell that is driving embryonic development, the stage that yields the cells (the inner cell mass) from which embryonic stem-cell lines are made," French said.
Violating California Law?
Marcy Darnovsky, associate executive director for the Center for Genetics and Society, said the Stemagen experiment is disturbing and may violate California law. This work, she says, raises three concerns.
"First, the acquisition of the human eggs needed for cloning-based stem-cell research puts women's health at risk. Second, it opens the door to reproductive cloning, which is not prohibited by federal law or laws in the majority of states. Third, it is highly unrealistic that research cloning can lead to custom treatments for patients, despite the company's claims of therapeutic potential," Darnovsky said.
Stemagen's protocol relies on obtaining eggs from women who provided them for prospective parents undergoing assisted reproduction. While the paper notes that neither the egg providers nor the prospective parents were paid by the researchers, Darnovsky explained, it is likely that the egg providers were paid by the prospective parents.
This arrangement, Darnovsky argued, would violate both the spirit and potentially the letter both of California's law and its guidelines governing stem-cell research that is not funded by the CIRM (California Institute for Regenerative Medicine). It would be explicitly prohibited by CIRM's regulations, she added, and any stem-cell lines derived under such an arrangement would be ineligible for CIRM funding.
Answering the Opposition
The GPI (Genetics Policy Institute) saluted Stemagen researchers on their accomplishment of cloning human embryos toward a goal of creating patient-specific embryonic stem cells for human therapeutic use.
"One day we may have patient-matched embryonic stem-cell lines which will enable researchers to investigate the root cause of diseases, test drugs using cells in lab dishes rather than in human subjects, and formulate individual cell therapies for patients," GPI Director Bernard Siegel said in a statement.
"Opponents of stem-cell research often try to blur the distinction between unethical human reproductive cloning and SCNT, which is a form of stem-cell research," Siegel continued. "Where there is so much suffering, it is imperative that scientists have all reasonable tools to seek lifesaving treatments and cures, and that includes SCNT."