Washington (AFP) Nov 25, 2001
US biotechnology researchers announced Sunday they had successfully created an early-stage human embryo, paving the way for future harvesting of stem cells to treat disease.
The announcement sparked another debate on the controversial medical procedure.
The Massachusetts-based Advanced Cell Technology (ACT) said in a paper to be available Monday in the Journal of Regenerative Medicine that it had effectively cloned early-stage embryos by performing somatic nuclear cell transfers.
"If the human cells behave as animal cells have in previous studies, we may have found a means of rebuilding the lifespan of cells at the same time," Michael West, the chief executive officer of ACT, said in a statement.
"This would allow us to supply young cells of any kind, identical to the patient, that could be used to address the tidal wave of age-related disease that will accompany the aging of the population."
The nuclei of donor eggs were extracted and replaced with adult human skin cells that were coaxed to activate then divide, forming a blastocyst -- a hollow ball of roughly 100 cells that holds a clump of stem cells, the building blocks of all organ and tissue cells within the body.
The researchers, however, were as yet unable to grow the inner cell mass of stem cells to yield the building block cells in humans, though they have had measured success in other animals.
"We intended to isolate human stem cells from the blastocysts to serve as the starter stock for growing replacement ... tissues," the researchers said in an analysis of their work in Scientific American.
"Unfortunately, only one of the embryos progressed to the six-cell stage, at which point it stopped dividing."
They also achieved measured success in a related experiment, creating early-stage embryos from eggs not fertilized with sperm cells.
Known as parthenogenesis, the Greek word for "virgin birth," it allows eggs to develop without fertilization, thereby simplifying the process of developing cloned embryos.
"We've taken the first halting steps toward what we call a new era in medicine," West told NBC's "Meet the Press" Sunday, noting the developments were likely to be scrutinized both by scientists and politicians trying to establish biotechnology standards to meet both medical, and moral, criteria.
"There's one big variable here, and that's the US Congress," with the House of Representatives already voting to "criminalize even the medical uses of cloning," West told CNN's "Late Edition."
White House spokeswoman Jennifer Millerwise stressed that US President George W. Bush has "made it clear 100 percent that he is opposed to any type of human cloning,"
Millerwise said the president, who in early August authorized limited federal funding for research on a select group of stem cell lines, gave his full support to the House bill, and suggested the US Senate do the same.
"He supported the House legislation to ban human cloning, and although the Senate has a busy calendar, this shows why it is important for the Senate to act," she told AFP.
"People are concerned about the ethical problems here," said Republican Senator Richard Shelby of Alabama on NBC's "Meet the Press." "Where does biomedical research lead to in the future? Will we just create test-tube babies everywhere?"
"We, in the Senate, have to draw that line so it's a reasonable line, so we can continue medical science and breakthroughs, without crossing that line into something none of us want to see," added Illinois Democrat Dick Durbin on CNN.
Reaction from the Vatican was muted, with Archbishop Tarcisio Bertone, the Holy See's secretary of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, prioritizing the need for further information.
Bertone said if a stem cell was extracted and added to an egg to genetically reprogram it, creating an embryo which was then destroyed, "then that is true human cloning, and that must be condemned."
But if ACT created stem cells from other, non-embryonic stem cells, "then we are talking about a veritable scientific achievement that we could see as ethically positive," he added.
West emphasized ACT's focus was to create embryos for therapeutic, not reproductive purposes, insisting if the procedure were declared illegal, "we wouldn't do it."
"We are just trying to help people who are sick," West insisted. "We're not talking about a little embryo with hands and feet. We're talking about a cluster of cells."
Advanced Cell Technology
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Cloning Hits A Barrier At Sixth Generation
New York - Sept. 20, 2000
Cloned animals may be harder to clone again, say researchers who have struggled to produce six generations of cloned mice. The result hints at a hidden defect in animals produced by the technology.
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