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.

FILED UNDER: Quick Takes, Science & Technology
Doug Mataconis
About Doug Mataconis
Doug holds a B.A. in Political Science from Rutgers University and J.D. from George Mason University School of Law. He joined the staff of OTB in May 2010. Before joining OTB, he wrote at Below The BeltwayThe Liberty Papers, and United Liberty Follow Doug on Twitter | Facebook

Comments

  1. C. Clavin says:

    Well if life begins at conception…which amounts to a single cell with the “potential” to become a human…and these stem cells have the “potential” to be a human…
    Well I just hope none of these guys drops a petri dish…because under Republicanist standards that would be murder.

  2. PJ says:

    @C. Clavin:
    Murder? It’s mass murder! IT’S GENOCIDE!

    Which brings me to the classic.
    You’re alone in a burning lab. There’s two doors in front of you. Behind one door a seven year old girl is trapped. Behind the other are two thousand frozen human embryos. You have only time to save one of them.

  3. beth says:

    And his experiments with monkeys indicate that it’s unlikely that they could ever develop into a healthy baby.

    Wow, now I need to worry about an army of mutant monkeys on the loose! What experiments has he been doing?

  4. Moosebreath says:

    Was this one of the lines which the Bush Administration prohibited federal funding of? If so, would we have been here faster without that policy?

  5. michael reynolds says:

    Of course this was going to happen. It was either going to happen here or in the UK or in Switzerland or any number of other places. We have the technology. . .

    I find people standing in the way of medical science for supposedly ethical reasons that have more to do with partisan politics than anything else to be repugnant. I’m not denying that some people have genuine ethical concerns. But their ethical concerns, however genuine, are not going to stop the science of this.

    We will clone embryos, and we will eventually implant those embryos or otherwise bring them to term. We will have clones walking around, talking and hopefully bringing me a cup of coffee. When we get those folks they’ll be humans with all the rights and safeguards any other human possesses. So I guess I’m not really seeing why I should panic over this. It’s going to be weird, but being able to outsource my memory to Google and my iPhone is weird, too, and somehow we survived.

  6. Stem cells? Oh man….I remember those. Been focusing on real problems so long that I almost forgot.

  7. stonetools says:

    I for one welcome our Cylon overlords.

    I know, its an ancient Internet tradition, but still a goodie:-).

    I’m hoping for a cloned heart to replace the original when or if it gives out.More generally, I’m hoping for Parkinson’s and ASL cures. Didn’t Obama restore the federal funding that Bush took away? Indeed he did.
    I’m sure his action had nothing done with this success, per the well-known “Obama can do no good” rule.

    See also another Internet tradition “What Have the Romans Ever Done for Us”. Its like kryptonite to libertarianism.

  8. Gustopher says:

    I am eagerly anticipating a state legislature banning identical twins with an overly broad attempt at banning cloning.

    I’m guessing it will be North Carolina.

  9. Electroman says:

    @Moosebreath: These were new stem cells produced from human eggs; they didn’t use any pre-existing stem cell lines at all.

  10. grumpy realist says:

    @michael reynolds: We already have clones walking around. They’re called twins.

  11. grumpy realist says:

    May all bioethicists discover they are suffering from a rare terminal disease that can only be solved through the use of stem cells. Then we’ll see if they will really put their money where their mouths are, so to speak.

    (I find a lot of so-called bioethics the contorted mental masturbation of well-fed, healthy individuals who have far too much time on their hands.)

  12. Matt says:

    @grumpy realist: Much like the nutty conservatives when it comes to healthcare and such…