A group of scientists at Harvard University has asked the school's ethics committees for permission to clone human embryos in order to create stem cells for disease research. If they get the go-ahead, they'll be the first researchers at a U.S. university to do so.
A U.S.-based company, Advanced Cell Technology, announced it had created the first cloned human embryo in late 2001, but the effort was widely regarded as, at best, a partial success. A South Korean university group said in February it had successfully cloned human embryos to produce embryonic stem cells.
And in August, scientists at the Center for Life at Newcastle University in England were given permission to begin work to create stem cells from cloned human embryos.
Molecular embryologist Doug Melton and colleagues at the Harvard Stem Cell Institute said Wednesday that they had officially applied for permission to clone human embryos to create stem cells. They hope to use the cells to study juvenile diabetes and diseases such as Alzheimer's and Parkinson's disease. Another group at the Harvard-affiliated Children's Hospital, working on blood diseases such as leukemia, also plans to attempt the creation of stem cell lines from cloned human embryos but has not yet applied for permission.
By federal law the research must be privately funded. Three years ago President Bush told the nation that public funds would not be used for stem-cell research that involved the creation and destruction of human embryos, but stopped short of outlawing such cloning.
Embryonic stem cells form about five days after sperm and egg unite. They are of great interest to scientists because they can become any type of body tissue. The hope is that the cells eventually can be coaxed to repair damaged tissues.
Melton's group plans to use a technique called somatic cell nuclear transfer: DNA from a skin cell is placed into a human egg after its own DNA is removed. The resulting embryo is destroyed and its stem cells harvested. The eggs would be donated by couples undergoing in vitro fertilization treatment.
By using skin cells from patients with diabetes or Alzheimer's, the scientists hope to create stem cell lines that carry the genetic components of those diseases. "We can't take an Alzheimer's patient and open up their head and remove some neurons. But we can create (embryonic stem) cells from a patient with Alzheimer's and turn them into neurons. And then what you have is neurons that can be studied ... that are genetically predisposed to Alzheimer's," says Charles Jennings, executive director of the Harvard Stem Cell Institute.
To the Catholic Church and others, including Bush, life begins at conception so destroying a 2-week-old embryo is murder. "This is going to lead to creating embryos just to destroy them," says Richard Doerflinger, deputy director of Pro-Life Activities for the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops.
The issue is a hot topic in the presidential election. Democratic challenger John Kerry supports increased stem cell research.