A Massachusetts biotech firm announced yesterday it has successfully cloned the first human embryo.
Scientists at Advanced Cell Technology Inc. (ACT) in Worcester said the purpose of their research is not to develop a human being, but to create a source of stem cells to treat a variety of major diseases.
Embryonic stem cells are a kind of master cell that can grow into any kind of cell in the body.
“Our intention is not to create cloned human beings, but rather to make lifesaving therapies for a wide range of human disease conditions, including diabetes, strokes, cancer, AIDS, and neurodegenerative disorders, such as Parkinson’s and Alzheimer’s disease,” Robert Lanza, vice president of medical and scientific development at ACT, said in a statement.
The goal is to take a piece of skin and grow some brain tissue for an Alzheimer’s patient suffering memory loss, or create pancreatic cells for a diabetic whose pancreas is not producing insulin to metabolize sugars.
“We’ve taken the first step toward what we hope will be a whole new era of medicine. It’s been called regenerative medicine. The idea is to be able to give replacement cells and tissues, like the way we repair a car when it’s broken,” Michael West, a biologist and president of ACT, said on CNN’s “Late Edition.”
However, ACT’s research published yesterday by the Journal of Regenerative Medicine and described online in Scientific American and U.S. News & World Report sparked charges of “murder” by pro-lifers and drew sharp criticism from the White House and some in Congress, who also question its morality.
The president has “made it clear 100 percent that he is opposed to any type of human cloning,” said White House spokeswoman Jennifer Millerwise.
“This corporation is creating human embryos for the sole purpose of killing them and harvesting their cells. Unless Congress acts quickly, this corporation and others will be opening human embryo farms,” Douglas Johnson, legislative director of the National Right to Life Committee, said in a statement.
The Vatican yesterday expressed caution and some reservation over ACT’s announcement. “More scientific verification is still necessary” to determine if this “can be defined as real human cloning,” Archbishop Tarcisio Bertone, the Holy See’s secretary of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, told the Ansa news agency.
However, he went on to say that if a “real human embryo” were “created and then destroyed” to obtain stem cells, “then that is true human cloning and must be condemned.”
In August, the House voted 265-165 in favor of a bill that would outlaw all human cloning, including human embryos. The Senate is scheduled to vote on such a legislation in February or March. But Mr. Johnson urged quicker action in the wake of ACT’s research.
“I believe it will be a big debate, but at the end of the day, I don’t think we’re going to let the cloning of human embryos go on,” Sen. Richard C. Shelby, Alabama Republican, said on NBC’s “Meet the Press.”
Senate Majority Leader Tom Daschle, South Dakota Democrat, said on “Fox News Sunday” that he needs more information. “But it’s disconcerting, frankly. I think it’s going in the wrong direction,” he said when asked about the cloning reports.
Sen. Patrick J. Leahy, Vermont Democrat and chairman of the Judiciary Committee, in an interview on NBC, said, “I find it very very troubling, and I think most of the Congress would.”
But Mr. West, who appeared on several news talk shows yesterday, said it would be a “mistake” for the Senate to reject the cloning of human embryos for medical purposes. He called Mr. Johnson’s observations “wrong.”
“Scientifically, biologically, the entities we are creating are not an individual. They’re only cellular life. They’re not a human life,” Mr. West said.
The ACT executive was far more encouraged by the comments made by Sen. Richard G. Lugar, Indiana Republican, and Sen. Richard J. Durbin, Illinois Democrat, on CNN’s “Late Edition.”
Both seemed to indicate they could support cloning human embryos for therapeutic, but not reproductive, purposes.
“So you are not ready to just follow the lead of the House of Representatives?” host Wolf Blitzer asked them.
“That’s true,” said Mr. Durbin.
“I’m not,” Mr. Lugar said.
In the various studies released yesterday, ACT scientists reported the successful transfer of human DNA into a woman’s donated egg and the growth of that egg into a six-cell embryo.
It’s a cloning technique that’s been used by ACT and others to create animals, such as cattle, pigs, goats and sheep. In fact, late last week, ACT said its scientists had cloned 24 cows that were normal in every test that was conducted.
In such cloning, the injected DNA usually comes from a skin cell. But in the experimentation reported yesterday, the researchers used a cumulus cell, which nurtures a developing egg.
ACT Vice President Joe Cibelli, who led the research, said his team sucked DNA out of the egg cell and replaced it with a separate cumulus cell with its own DNA.
The egg began dividing, as if it had been fertilized by a sperm. But its development was stopped long before it became a baby at the point where it was still a ball of cells.
In a second experiment, the ACT scientists described how they used a technique called parthenogenesis to spur the growth of human egg cells, without fertilization or outside genetic material.
In this procedure, 22 egg cells were exposed to chemicals that changed the concentration of electronically charged ions within them. Six eggs reprogrammed themselves to develop into early embryos known as blastocysts, which contain dozens of cells.
Unlike existing stem-cell lines, stem cells created through cloning would provide an ailing patient with cells that match his own genetic code. The hope is that such cells would eliminate rejection problems and the need for immune-suppressing drugs.
While the research findings were repeatedly described as a “breakthrough” in news accounts and television interviews yesterday, ACT officials described them as “preliminary.”
Associated Press said that was because the firm’s experiments have not yet produced its primary goal: stem cells that grow inside an embryo and differentiate into other organs and tissues. ACT’s paper does not say if it was able to derive any human embryonic stem cells from its cloning effort.
Glenn McGee, a University of Pennsylvania bioethicist who resigned from ACT’s ethics advisory board, criticized the report for not being more forthcoming. ACT’s announcement is “nothing but hype,” he told AP.
This article is based in part on wire service reports.