For the first time, American scientists successfully cloned humans. Four embryo clones were permitted to develop into blastocysts before being harvested for their stem cells. The findings of the scientists led by Shoukhrat Mitalipov, a reproductive biology specialist at the Oregon Health and Science University in Beaverton, were published in the Cell journal.
The scientists used somatic cell nuclear transfer (SCNT), also known as therapeutic cloning, the same process that cloned Dolly the sheep in 1996. It involves removing the nucleus containing genetic information from an egg cell. The egg is then fused with a body cell from another individual. This causes the body cell, containing the same genetic information as the person from whom it originated, to be reprogrammed into an embryo.
Scientists have previously only been able to create stem cell lines by fusing egg cells with the nuclei intact with body cells, though the result had limited uses because the resulting embryos were not clones, and had unusual amounts of DNA
In 2007, Mitalipov was able to clone monkey embryos and use them for stem cells.
This time around, to make the human clones, the scientists used an inactive virus to fuse the egg cell (without the nucleus) with body cells. The scientists then jolted the result with electricity to activate the development of the embryo. Scientists were able to use the technique on cells from an eight-month old patient with Leigh syndrome as well as fetal skin cells. The eggs were collected from women 23 to 31 years of age who received $3,000 to $7,000 dollars in compensation.
The journal accepted the paper only three days after it was submitted and it was just another 12 days before it was published. Because of this rush, the authors and reviewers overlooked errors in the labeling, duplication, and data of some of the images and graphs, which were discovered by an anonymous commenter on PubPeer. In 2004, another group, led by South Korean university professor Woo Suk Hwang, claimed to have created cloned cell lines, but it turned out to have been a fraud. Mitalipov, however, is attempting to arrange for other scientists to see the results so they can confirm their veracity.
There is, however, no federal law regulating SCNT. States that currently ban the procedure include Arkansas, Indiana, Iowa, Michigan, North Dakota, and South Dakota. It is also illegal under Canada’s 2005 Assisted Human Reproduction Act.
Mitalipov said in a press release that “because these reprogrammed cells can be generated with nuclear genetic material from a patient, there is no concern of transplant rejection,” and thus, “this is a significant step forward in developing the cells that could be used in regenerative medicine.”
“While nuclear transfer breakthroughs often lead to a public discussion about the ethics of human cloning, this is not our focus, nor do we believe our findings might be used by others to advance the possibility of human reproductive cloning,” Mitalipov said. The press release states that it is unlikely that the scientists’ technique will lead to the birth of a cloned baby because the human embryos are fragile and years of research have not yet led to the birth of cloned monkeys using similar techniques. But as Wesley Smith wrote on his blog at National Review Online, “that doesn’t mean they won’t.” Smith said the limits are technological, not moral, and that scientists constantly push the envelope on what’s allowed.
Smith also contradicted Mitalipov’s claim that there were no monkey clones after finding a 2010 study showing that scientists were able to make one monkey embryo develop into a fetus with a heartbeat.
Some media outlets, however, are misrepresenting the breakthrough. The Oregon Health and Science University press release states it is “noteworthy” because “it does not involve the use of fertilized embryos.” Nature cites “fears that the technology might be used to create human clones.” A Los Angeles Times editorial claims the technique “doesn’t require the destruction of human embryos.” Smith debunks those claims. “Once the SCNT is done, the cloning is over,” he explained in his NRO blog. “After that, the question becomes not whether to clone, but what to do with the embryo that was created through the cloning process. These scientists destroyed the embryos and derived stem cell lines.”