Human Embryo Created Through Cloning

Sunday, November 25, 2001; Washington, D.C. ( CNN) -- Scientists at a technology company said Sunday that "they have created human embryos through cloning," drawing criticism from President Bush and lawmakers and raising new ethical questions. Advanced Cell Technology Inc. of Worcester, MA, said the experiment way aimed not at creating a human being but at mining the embryo for stem cells used to treat disease.

Stem cells are a kind of master cell that can grow into any kind of cell in the body. The company's study was also published in an online scientific journal. "I'm just trying to help people who are sick, and really that's our focus," said Dr. Michael West, the company's President and CEO. He called the development "the first, halting steps" toward a new area of medicine. Speaking on CNN's Late Edition with Wolf Blitzer, West disputed the suggestion the work amounted to the creation of a human being. "We're talking about making human cellular life, not a human life," West said.

How It Was Done

The technique used by Advanced Cell Technology scientists is called somatic cell nuclear transfer, also referred to as human therapeutic cloning. A cell from a patient's body is combined with an egg cell that has had its DNA removed [ enucleated]. This reprograms the body cell's DNA back to an embryonic state, and stem cells identical to the patient's own are produced. Stem cells are pluripotent and can form any cell or tissue in the human body.

Of eight eggs, two divided to form early embryos composed of four cells. One progressed to a six-cell stage before it stopped dividing. This breakthrough occurred on October 13, 2001.

"A human life, we know scientifically, begins upwards, even into two weeks, of human development, where this little ball of cells decides, 'I'm going to become one person or I am going to be two persons.' It hasn't decided yet." West said the breakthrough in what he called " therapeutic cloning" could lead to advances in fighting a variety of ailments, including Parkinson's Disease and diabetes. He said his company was not interested in cloning human beings and did not create the embryos for reproductive purposes.

Immediate Criticism

The news drew immediate criticism from some lawmakers "I think that people are concerned about the ethical problems here," Sen. Richard Shelby, R-AL, said on NBC's Meet the Press. He said he expected lawmakers would soon take up the issue. "I believe it will be a big debate, but at end of day I don't believe we'll permit cloning of human embryos," Shelby said.

"I find it very, very troubling, and I think most of Congress would," Sen. Patrick Leahy, Democrat of Vermont, said on NBC.

A White House spokeswoman reaffirmed President Bush's opposition to human cloning. "The President has made it clear that he is 100 percent opposed to any type of cloning of human embryos," said spokeswoman Jennifer Millerwise. "The President supports the House legislation that seeks to ban human cloning and which passed overwhelmingly." Last summer, the House of Representatives voted to ban human cloning and set penalties of up to ten years in prison and a $1 million fine for those convicted of attempting to clone a human being. The measure has not yet been taken up by the Senate, so it never became law. [ Editor's Note: It is reported that the Senate will hold hearings on this issue in January and that the full Senate will vote on the Bill in February or March 2002.]

Sen. Richard Durbin, D-Illinois, said he "hoped the Senate could find a compromise that would allow some cloning research to continue, without opening the door to the creation of human beings through cloning." "We in the Senate have to draw that line so it's a reasonable line, so we can continue medical science and breakthroughs, without crossing that line into something none of us wish to see," he said on CNN's Late Edition

Lifesaving Therapies

In the study, published in the online Journal of Regenerative Medicine, scientists removed the DNA from human egg cells and replaced it with DNA from a human body cell. The egg cells began to develop "into an embryonic state," according to a press release from the company. Of the eight eggs, two divided to form early embryos of four cells and one progressed to a six-cell stage before it stopped dividing.

ACT's Michael West said, "I'm just trying to help people who are sick, and really that's our focus."

"These are exciting preliminary developments," said Dr. Robert P. Lanza, Vice President of Medical and Scientific Development at ACT and one of the authors of the paper. "This work sets the stage for human therapeutic cloning as a potentially limitless source of immune-compatible cells for tissue engineering and transplantation medicine." "Our intention is not to create cloned human beings," Lanza said, "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 Diseases."

Other Efforts are Underway Offshore

Earlier this year, Italian fertility doctor Severino Antinori and U.S. researcher Dr. Panos Zavos announced plans to clone humans. They reported that "hundreds of couples had volunteered for controversial procedure." The announcement was criticized by officials in several countries, and Italian authorities threatened to ban Antinori from practicing medicine if he goes ahead with such an experiment.

Another organization, Clonaid, moved its research into human cloning outside of the United States after being investigated by the federal government. Clonaid was founded by members of a religion called the Raelian Movement, which believes that "extraterrestrial scientists created life on Earth and that cloning is a way of achieving eternal life." The FDA investigated the company after its Director of Research, Dr. Brigitte Boisselier, told a congressional hearing the company wanted to clone a human in the United States.