Sunday, March 25, 2007

SAN FRANCISCO (AP) — It was nearly a decade ago that Jose Cibelli plugged his own DNA into a cow’s egg in a novel cloning attempt that was condemned as unethical by President Clinton and landed the Michigan State University researcher in a mess of controversy.

Even though Dr. Cibelli and his colleagues patented the so-called interspecies cloning technique, they soon abandoned the research as a failure and the uproar subsided.

Now the tempest is brewing all over again.

At least three respected teams of British scientists have reignited the moral debate over inserting human genes into animal eggs by proposing experiments similar to Dr. Cibelli’s.

Their goal is to eliminate the need for women to donate eggs for the cloning of human embryos, a research goal they say will enable them to better understand the genetic causes of many diseases and design personalized medicines.

The few scientists who are actively pursuing human cloning are hobbled by a nearly nonexistent human-egg supply. And each researcher will need thousands of them.

“Getting eggs from women is the bottleneck to cloning,” Dr. Cibelli said. “An alternative would be welcomed.”

The British teams aim to get around that bottleneck by taking DNA from patients sick with a disease such as Alzheimer’s and fuse it with cow eggs that have had all their genetic material removed. The hope is that the human DNA will trick the eggs into thinking they’re pregnant, beginning development.

After about five days of growth, the cloned embryos would be destroyed and the stem cells extracted. The stem cells would be grown in their labs, and the researchers could look for the onset of diseases, study their development and test experimental drugs on the cells.

“You can model Alzheimer’s disease or Parkinson’s disease in a dish,” said Stephen Minger, director of the Stem Cell Laboratory at King’s College in London.

Mr. Minger’s request for a government license to use cow eggs instead of women’s eggs to generate human embryonic stem cells stirred significant controversy in Britain last year. His application with the Human Fertilization and Embryology Authority — along with one from Lyle Armstrong of the North East England Stem Cell Institute — is expected to be ruled on later this year.

British researchers are required to obtain government licenses to work with human embryonic stem cells. No such restrictions exist in the United States, though President Bush limited federal funding for such research in this country.

Ian Wilmut, the British researcher who cloned Dolly the sheep in 1997, said that if British government approves licenses for Mr. Minger and Mr. Armstrong, he’ll apply for a third.

“What has been overlooked in the cloning debate is the huge benefit it could have in drug discovery,” Mr. Wilmut said.

He and Mr. Minger were among the noted cloning experts who attended a research meeting earlier this month in San Francisco.

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