Massachusetts Company Clones First Human Embryos
Advanced Cell Technology Inc., a biotechnology firm based in Worcester, Mass., announced yesterday that it has created the first cloned human embryos, a "technological breakthrough" that could lead to cures for degenerative diseases, the Worchester Telegram & Gazette reports. The company, which seeks to use cloned embryos as a source of stem cells for a process known as therapeutic cloning, published its results in Scientific American and the online journal e-biomed: The Journal of Regenerative Medicine (Eckelbecker, Worcester Telegram & Gazette, 11/26).
News of ACT's experiments has again sparked debate about the ethics of cloning among scientists, bioethicists and policymakers around the world, the Boston Globe reports. Cardinal Bernard Law of the Archdiocese of Boston said that he needed to study the report in greater detail, but he said that genetic engineering holds the possibility of "destroy[ing] the fabric of human relations" (Dembner, Boston Globe, 11/26). "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 (Donn, AP/South Florida Sun-Sentinel, 11/26). Speaking on NBC's "Meet the Press" on Sunday, ACT President and CEO Dr. Michael West said that his company was not creating persons, adding that the products of ACT's experiments are "only cellular life, they're not a human life" (Russert, "Meet the Press," NBC, 11/25). Dr. Robert Lanza, ACT vice president, said that the company's intention was "not to create cloned human beings, but rather to make lifesaving therapies for a wide range of human disease conditions, including diabetes, stroke, cancer, AIDS and neurodegenerative diseases such as Parkinson's and Alzheimer's disease" (Lane, Newsday, 11/26). George Annas, a bioethics professor at Boston University, called ACT's decision to publish its findings this early in the process "irresponsible." He added that pressing ahead with therapeutic cloning research before public debate on cloning is finished would "mak[e] it more likely that similar research will be banned" (Boston Globe, 11/26). "It's disturbing. It makes it look like the people who say scientists are irresponsible are right," he said (Washington, Boston Herald, 11/26).
Although therapeutic cloning is currently legal in the United States, the House in July voted in favor of a bill banning all forms of cloning. The Senate has not yet taken up cloning legislation, but it is scheduled to debate the issue in February or March (Washington Times, 11/26). Anne Keissling, co-author of ACT's research report, said that the company decided to publish its findings ahead of the hearings because they "wanted to show that [cloning technology] works so that when Congress takes it up it will be more than just a theory." It is unclear if Congress will progress to debating the issue of cloning before the end of this legislative session because of pending appropriations bills and bioterrorism legislation. However, Sen. Sam Brownback (R-Kan.) said he plans to introduce a six-month moratorium on all human cloning efforts, regardless of whether those efforts are directed at producing a human being or not, in order to give lawmakers more time to "thoroughly" debate the issue. Rep. David Weldon (R-Fla.) will introduce companion legislation in the House (Regalado et al., Wall Street Journal, 11/26). Jennifer Millerwise, a White House spokesperson, said that even though the Senate has a full schedule, it is "important for them to act" swiftly. She said that President Bush is "opposed to any type of human cloning" (Borenstein, Miami Herald, 11/26). Senate Majority Leader Tom Daschle (D-S.D.) said he supports cloning for research purposes, but he "vehemently oppose[s] any cloning for purposes of human replication" (Kenen, Houston Chronicle, 11/25).
In July, ACT officials revealed that they had been working on therapeutic cloning for one year. The company paid women between $3,000 and $5,000 to harvest eggs for use in cloning experiments (Kolata, New York Times, 11/26). The women were between the ages of 24 and 32 and had already had at least one child. An independent ethics review board insisted on the one-child stipulation because the women were given fertility drugs to help researchers harvest larger numbers of eggs, and such drugs may damage the reproductive organs (Vergano, USA Today, 11/26). ACT researchers used two techniques, the first technique being "much like the standard approach" used to clone animals. Genetic material was removed from 11 eggs and replaced with genetic material from skin cells, but all of the eggs died before they could divide (New York Times, 11/26). The genetic material from the skin cells was probably too large and "disrupted" the egg during transfer, the researchers stated in their report (USA Today, 11/26). ACT researchers then injected eight eggs with genetic material from cumulus cells, which "cling" to human eggs. Three of the eggs divided once or twice before dying, but it was impossible to retrieve stem cells from any of the embryos. An embryo needs to be about five days old and contain two types of cells before stem cells can be harvested. In the second technique, researchers chemically stimulated an egg to divide without first fertilizing it -- a process known as parthenogenesis, which may be less likely to carry the ethical implications associated with embryo research because the resulting cells have only one set of genetic material and cannot develop into fetuses. Twenty-two eggs were stimulated to divide and most died within a day, while six lasted for five days but died before yielding stem cells. Although many scientists have said that the early stage cells were not true embryos, ACT said it was pleased with the results. In a press release, the company said that the results "provid[e] the first proof that reprogrammed human cells can supply tissue for transplantation" (New York Times, 11/26).This is part of the California Healthline Daily Edition, a summary of health policy coverage from major news organizations. Sign up for an email subscription.