More MS news articles for July 2001

Company Using Cloning to Yield Stem Cells

JUL 13, 2001

WASHINGTON, July 12 In another example of how stem cell research is running ahead of public policy, a Massachusetts company is trying to use cloning technology to create human embryos that would yield the cells, which in turn might give rise to tissues that were a perfect match for patients.

The technique, being developed by Advanced Cell Technology Inc., a privately held biotechnology company in Worcester, Mass., is often called therapeutic cloning. It is the subject of intense debate in Congress, which is considering legislation, backed by President Bush, to ban such research.

"We've thought long and hard about this," Michael West, the president of Advanced Cell Technology, said in an interview today.

After keeping the experiments secret for a year, Mr. West said, he decided to talk about it when reporters began pressing him. The experiment was first reported today in The Washington Post. "We need transparency here, I agree," he said.

Dr. West would not say how far along the experiments were, or whether any embryos had been created. But he did say women were being recruited as egg donors for the research, and that the company had taken extreme precautions to prevent any embryos from being implanted into a woman's womb, where they might grow into a baby.

"We are not trying to clone people," Dr. West said.

The company's disclosure comes days after a Virginia fertility clinic said it had mixed donated eggs and sperm to create embryos for the express purpose of deriving stem cells, which may be useful in treating disease. Taken together, the studies are intensifying an already heated debate over the morality of stem cell work, which is opposed by religious conservatives because the embryos, microscopic balls of cells that they regard as nascent life, are destroyed.

In the case of the Massachusetts research, the company's bioethics board questions whether embryo is even the right term, because scientists are not working with the union of egg and sperm and have no intention of creating a baby.

"I'm tending personally to steer toward the term `activated egg,' " said Dr. Ronald M. Green, a bioethicist at Dartmouth College, the chairman of the board.

Until this week, the stem cell debate has centered on whether the federal government should pay for research on cells derived from frozen embryos that would otherwise be discarded by fertility clinics. President Bush is weighing a decision on that issue. Now, however, it is apparent that scientists are creating fresh embryos and also using a technology cloning that makes many people nervous.

"The comfort level that exists with embryonic stem cell research has been premised on the idea that the embryos would be lost anyway," said R. Alta Charo, a bioethicist at the University of Wisconsin. "These two techniques involve embryos that would not have been lost. So they put, quite squarely, the question of how we balance our interest in protecting people who are already born and our interests in protecting embryonic life."

Stem cells, which are extracted from embryos when the embryos are still microscopic clusters of cells, have the potential to grow into any of the body's more than 200 cell types. So scientists say they may be useful in repairing or replacing damaged body parts. But many scientists foresee a problem: immune rejection.

Some see therapeutic cloning as a way to get around that problem. Cloning for research is legal in Britain, but the United States government has no policy on it. Many ethicists here argue that it is morally justifiable, but others argue that it will lead to cloning people.

"Our technology is ahead of our thinking as a country," said Senator Sam Brownback, Republican of Kansas, the author of the bill that would ban cloning for either research or reproduction. "I have been saying for some time that this is where we are headed, but we are getting here faster than I thought."

About a year ago, Advanced Cell Technology convened an ethics panel to review its proposed experiment. Dr. Green, the panel chairman, said the members agreed at the outset that the goals of the research were ethical. They have focused primarily on protecting the interests of egg donors, he said.

Dr. Green said the women were paid "in the middle range" of the $3,000 to $5,000 fee that is customary in New England. The company, he said, does not want to draw donors away from couples who want to have babies. Once their eggs are retrieved at fertility clinics, Advanced Cell scientist will try to create embryos with a technique similar to the one used to clone the sheep Dolly.

The procedure would begin by removing the nucleus of a donor's egg. Then, scientists would take a cell from the skin of another donor and slip it into the egg. If the cloning effort worked, the egg would reprogram the genes of the skin to make them ready to direct the development of an embryo. Advanced Cell scientists would then try to extract stem cells from the resulting embryo. The cells might later be coaxed to become those of the heart, liver or any other organ "personalized cells," in the words of Dr. West, that could be transplanted into patients without fear of rejection.

"What a dream," Dr. West said. "To take a cell from a patient and take it back in this little time machine, of the egg cell, and make it young again."

But Dr. West's dream is not the only way to get around the immune rejection problem, said Dr. James Thomson, the University of Wisconsin developmental biologist who first isolated human embryonic stem cells three years ago.

And a former member of the Advanced Cell Technology ethics panel, Dr. Glenn McGee, was highly critical of the company today, saying he had resigned from the panel in protest over the company's secretiveness.

"This company has done everything it can to keep everything it does quiet as long as possible," said Dr. McGee, who teaches bioethics at the University of Pennsylvania. "They are protecting their intellectual property interest rather than the public interest."

Copyright 2001 The New York Times Company