The promising but controversial field of cloning was advanced by researchers in Oregon after they converted human skin cells into embryonic stem cells.
Researchers did not create a human clone – but the advancement could reignite the controversy surrounding the ethics of cloning.
Still, scientists predict related stem cell therapy someday could be used to treat Parkinson’s disease, multiple sclerosis, heart disease and spinal cord injuries.
There is some good news for supporters of cloning after Oregon Health & Science University researchers said they were able to turn skin cells from human beings into embryonic stem cells.
They used a variation of somatic cell nuclear transfer technique – where the nucleus of one cell was transplanted into an egg cell that had genetic material removed.
“A thorough examination of the stem cells derived through this technique demonstrated their ability to convert just like normal embryonic stem cells, into several different cell types, including nerve cells, liver cells and heart cells. Furthermore, because these reprogrammed cells can be generated with nuclear genetic material from a patient, there is no concern of transplant rejection,” Shoukhrat Mitalipov, a scientist on the team, said in a statement. “While there is much work to be done in developing safe and effective stem cell treatments, we believe this is a significant step forward in developing the cells that could be used in regenerative medicine.”
The researchers also claim the achievement does not involve the use of fertilized embryos – which is the focus of much controversy.
“This is a remarkable accomplishment by the Mitalipov lab that will fuel the development of stem cell therapies to combat several diseases and conditions for which there are currently no treatments or cures,” said Dan Dorsa, OHSU’s vice president for Research.
Still, the embryos in this study will “not grow into living human babies or even start a pregnancy – they’re deficient in a key way,” NBC News added.
There was mixed reaction to the news, NBC reported. For instance, Dr. George Daley, a stem cell specialist at Harvard Medical School, described it a "beautiful piece of work.”
But O. Carter Snead, a professor of law at the University of Notre Dame, said, “The use and destruction of living human beings – at any stage of biological development – for scientific research is a terrible injustice. Human cloning for biomedical research is a particularly aggravated form of this harm.”
And just how important is the finding?
“They showed, for the first time, that it is possible to create cloned embryonic stem cells that are genetically identical to the person from whom they are derived,” according to a report from The Wall Street Journal. “The achievement is a long way from creating a cloned human embryo.”
Other animals have been cloned, but not monkeys or human beings.
"It's a matter of time before they produce a cloned monkey," Jose Cibelli, who teaches at Michigan State University, told The Journal.
Monkeys and humans may be harder to clone because their egg cells “are more fragile than those of other species,” The Journal speculated citing findings from Mitalipov.
Looking ahead, he hopes to soon use the techniques to treat blindness in monkeys.
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