News Brief: Massachusetts company announces embryo cloning

Drawing criticism from both ethicists and lawmakers, Advanced Cell Technology, a Worcester, MA-based biotech company dedicated to research and development of genetic technologies for agricultural and pharmaceutical research, announced last November that its scientists had successfully cloned a human embryo.

In a report published in the on-line journal e-biomed: The Journal of Regenerative Medicine, researchers reported that they used somatic cell nuclear transfer to form pre-implantation embryos. In this procedure, human egg cells are prepared by removing their DNA and adding the DNA from a human somatic (body) cell. The journal reports that the somatic nuclei showed evidence of reprogramming to an embryonic state as evidenced by pronuclear development (a type of nucleus observed only in the fertilized egg) and by early embryonic development to the six-cell stage.

The company did not report on whether it had isolated embryonic stem cells.

Under a measure passed last year by the U.S. House of Representatives, human embryo cloning would be considered a crime punishable by a fine and imprisonment. The U.S. Senate has yet to take action on the proposal.

Announcement gets criticism

Following the company’s announcement, a number of ethicists and researchers criticized the findings. Among the critics are National Institutes of Health (NIH) director Harold Varmus and Boston University bioethicist George Annas. Both argue that the researchers had not contributed any new information to the science of stem-cell biology because they had not isolated the stem cells.

A member of the on-line journal’s editorial board, John Gearhart, a researcher at Johns Hopkins Medical Institutions in Baltimore, announced on Dec. 5 that he was stepping down from his position on the board to protest inclusion of the study in the publication.

Therapeutic use is OK

Despite the controversy, seven senators announced their support for therapeutic human cloning in the wake of the report’s publication.

Sen. Tom Harkin (D-IA) told the Los Angeles Times on Dec. 5 that he would introduce a bill that would outlaw reproductive cloning, but permit scientists to use "therapeutic" cloning as a means to research cures for disease.

A similar bill has already been introduced by Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-CA) and is supported by four other senators. Sen. Arlen Specter (R-PA), a supporter of stem-cell research under President Bush’s guidelines, announced through a spokes-man that he supports therapeutic cloning but has not endorsed a particular bill.