After more than 2 years of what Harvard Provost Steven Hyman called "the most extensive ethical and scientific review in recent memory," Harvard University researchers have been given the go-ahead to use cloning to create disease-specific lines of human embryonic stem cells.
Experts say research cloning--known as somatic cell nuclear transfer (SCNT)--will give scientists a far more effective tool for studying diseases such as diabetes and Parkinson's. But some people oppose the technique for religious and philosophical reasons because it involves creating and destroying fertilized eggs, and the procedure is banned in some states. There are no reports of success with SCNT, now that the research of Korean scientist Woo Suk Hwang was discredited (ScienceNOW, 12 May).
Scientists described their plans to use the technology at press conference held at Harvard today. Five institutions and eight Institutional Review Boards approved the new arrangement. It's been a "Herculean effort," said researcher George Daley of Children's Hospital Boston, because of all the ethical, logistical, legal, and financial matters that had to be resolved.
Proper egg donation procedures have been a major issue. The researchers plan to recruit "compassionate" donors, who will not be paid anything beyond expenses, from the Boston area. To avoid medical problems that have reportedly plagued women who donated eggs for Hwang's research (ScienceNOW, 2 February), Kevin Eggan of the Harvard Stem Cell Institute said there will be limits on how much hormonal stimulation will be allowed, and no more than 8 to 10 eggs will be taken from any individual. In addition, all financial backing for the research will be privately donated--in keeping with the federal prohibitions on funding such work.
Several projects now have the green light. Eggan and colleague Douglas Melton are cultivating skin cells taken from diabetics and plan to insert their nuclei into enucleated eggs in order to create disease-specific stem cell lines--moving the study of disease "from patients to a petri dish," as Melton put it. Eggan also intends to use the technique to study neurodegenerative diseases such as amyotrophic lateral sclerosis. Daley meanwhile plans to create customized cell lines using skin biopsies from patients with sickle cell anemia and other blood diseases.
Harvard is now the second academic institution in the country, after the University of California, San Francisco (UCSF), to embark on SCNT work. Arnold Kriegstein, head of UCSF's new Stem Cell Institute, says, "I'm very happy to hear" the Harvard news. "The more people who are working on this, the more likely that it will succeed."