Scientists Say They Have Cloned Human Embryos To Make Stem Cells
A potentially groundbreaking development in microbiology that is certain to have political consequences:
Scientists say they have, for the first time, cloned human embryos capable of producing embryonic stem cells.
The accomplishment is a long-sought step toward harnessing the potential power of embryonic stem cells to treat many human diseases. But the work also raises a host of ethical concerns.
“This is a huge scientific advance,” said Dr. George Daley, a Harvard stem cell scientist who wasn’t involved in the work. “But it’s going to, I think, raise the specter of controversy again.”
The controversy arises from several factors. The experiments involve creating and then destroying human embryos for research purposes, which some find morally repugnant. The scientists also used cloning techniques, which raise concerns that the research could lead to the cloning of people.
Shoukhrat Mitalipov of the Oregon Health & Science University and his colleagues never gave up. They succeeded in mice and monkeys. And in this week’s issue of the journal Cell, Mitalipov’s team reports they finally did it in humans.
“I’m very excited,” Mitalipov says. “It’s a very significant advance.”
The researchers first recruited women who were willing to provide eggs for the research. Next, they removed most of the DNA from each egg and replaced the genetic material with DNA from other peoples’ skin cells.
Then, after a long search, they finally found the best way to stimulate each egg so that it would develop into an embryo without the need to be fertilized with sperm. The key turned out to be a combination of chemicals and an electric pulse.
“We had to find the perfect combination,” Mitalipov says. As it turned out, that perfect combination included something surprising: caffeine.
“The Starbucks experiment, I guess,” quipped Daley. “This little change in the cocktail was what really allowed the experiment to really ultimately succeed.”
That ingredient, plus other tweaks in the process, including using fresh eggs and determining the optimal stage of each egg’s development, Mitalipov says.
The researchers showed that the resulting embryos could develop to a stage where they could produce healthy stem cells containing the genes from the skin cells. They even showed that the stem cells could be turned into other types of cells, including heart cells that in a laboratory dish could pulse like a beating heart.
Obviously, this news has raised some serious ethical concerns:
First of all, the Oregon researchers compensated women financially to donate eggs for the experiments — something many in the field have considered ethically questionable.
But beyond that, the creation and destruction of a human embryo is morally repugnant to people who believe an embryo has the same moral standing as a human being.
“This is a case in which one is deliberately setting out to create a human being for the sole purpose of destroying that human being,” says Dr. Daniel Sulmasy, a professor of medicine and a bioethicist at the University of Chicago. “I’m of the school that thinks that that’s morally wrong no matter how much good could come of it.”
Moreover, Mitalipov used the same method that researchers used previously to clone Dolly the sheep. That approach raises the possibility that scientists could try to clone a human being.
“This raises serious problems because it is the first actual human cloning,” Sulmasy says. “We already know there are people out there who are itching to be able to be the first to bring a cloned human being to birth. And I think it’s going to happen.”
But Mitalipov dismisses those concerns. He says the embryos he created aren’t the equivalent of a human being because they weren’t fertilized naturally. And his experiments with monkeys indicate that it’s unlikely that they could ever develop into a healthy baby.
“The procedures we developed actually are very efficient to make stem cells, but it’s unlikely that this will be very useful for kind of reproductive cloning,” Mitalipov says.
Unlikely, but perhaps not impossible, and now that they’ve been able to take this step you can bet someone will try to take it a step further.