A Human Cell in Sheep's Clothing

By Judson, Olivia | Natural History, July/August 2007 | Go to article overview
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A Human Cell in Sheep's Clothing

Judson, Olivia, Natural History

Biologists in Nevada are gambling that sheep can grow spare body parts for people.

I'm about to see something odd. I'm about to see the creation of a sheep with a partly human liver.

I'm visiting the University of Nevada at its campus in Reno - a town with all the vice of Vegas but none of the charm. I've come to take part in a documentary about biotechnology. The star of the episode is in front of me on an operating table: a pregnant ewe, lying on her back with her legs Splayed. She's been knocked out with an anesthetic, and the wool on her belly has been shaved off. Her skin is pink. The surgeon picks up a tool that looks like a sharp soldering iron and starts to make a cut down the belly. Acrid smoke rises from the cut.

I wrinkle my nose. "Strong smell of burning flesh," I say.

"Just smells of roast," says the surgeon.

Well, up to a point. But the burning seals the blood vessels shut, so there is no bleeding. None at all.

The surgeon cuts down the middle of the belly, in the gap where the stomach muscles meet. (If the sheep had a six-pack, the cut would be down the center.) A few more cuts, and we have a window into the sheep's insides. The surgeon slides a hand into the opening and starts to haul out the womb. It's red, and glistens. I feel I'm watching clowns getting out of a clown car: the womb keeps coming and coming. I watch in astonishment. I had no idea you could partly pull out an animal's insides like this.

"A sheep's womb is a different shape from a human womb," says the surgeon. "A human womb looks like a sack. A sheep's womb has two horns that join at the base." She arranges the womb so that I can see both horns and starts running her hands over them, squeezing slightly. "The fetuses can be in either horn," she says. "Sometimes you have one in each, sometimes you have three in one and none in the other. This sheep has only one fetus. Here it is. The hips are here." The outlines of the fetal sheep, now almost nine weeks old and about six inches long, show through the lining of the womb; it's like looking at a child covered by a blanket.

"What happens now?"

"Now we inject human stem cells into the fetus. We don't need to cut into the womb, we just inject the human cells by pushing the needle through the wall of the womb and into the body of the fetus. This is very safe: we haven't lost a fetus since we started doing the operations this way" (they haven't lost any ewes either).

The surgeon's assistant picks up a long syringe tilled with fluid.

"That contains the stem cells?" I ask.

"Yes. Stem cells from an adult," says the assistant. He positions the needle so that the fluid will be injected into the belly of the fetus, and pushes the plunger.

Each stem cell has the potential to become one of many kinds of tissue - which is why stem cells have become stich a hot area of research. As stem cells differentiate into tissue of a particular type - heart, say - they switch off the genes they don't need for the heart and switch on the ones they do need. Thus a stem cell would take on such traits of a heart cell as shape and size. Once a cell has committed to a certain path, it loses its flexibility: a heart cell cannot suddenly become a liver cell. Stem cells, then, are cells without commitments.

Stem cells come from three main sources. Embryos arc one - they're the reason some of the work on stem cells is controversial. Many cells in an early embryo are stem cells, and they can form any kind of tissue. A second source is blood from the umbilical cords of newborn babies. And it turns out that adults also have a few stem cells, lurking in places such as bone marrow and skin. Stem cells from those sources are not quite as versatile as embryonic stem cells, but their use is uncontroversial. And it is a batch of human adult bone marrow stem cells that I've just seen injected. The surgeon stuffs the womb back into the sheep (somehow it all fits) and sews up the incision.

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