First Cloned Human Embryo

Article excerpt

Byline: JAMES CHAPMAN

RESEARCHERS have created the first cloned human embryos in an experiment that crosses one of the most fundamental ethical boundaries in science.

Though just tiny balls of cells, they were the first human life to have been produced without conception.

The announcement last night by American scientists prompted furious debate on both sides of the Atlantic.

The embryos were created using techniques pioneered by the British team which created Dolly the sheep.

Experts at the Massachusetts firm Advanced Cell Technology used single cells taken from adult donors and eggs donated by women volunteers.

They removed the DNA - the blueprint for life - from the eggs and replaced it with DNA from the centre of the adult cells.

The eggs were then given a jolt of electricity, and in three out of eight cases, embryos began to develop.

But the largest stopped growing after three days, when it contained six cells. The other two stopped growing at four cells.

To be of medical use, an embryo would need to reach a minimum of 64 cells after around seven days of normal development.

But the Americans were confident yesterday that they have shown the technique is viable, and that it will lead to cures for a host of diseases.

Within a decade, they claimed, cloned embryos could be ' harvested' for tissues to treat anything from Parkinson's disease to heart failure.

However, opponents argued that creating human life and then destroying it in the laboratory was morally unacceptable, and that publishing details of how the embryos were produced would help pave the way for cloned babies.

The breakthrough happened on October 13, and details will be published today in the Journal of Regenerative Medicine.

Key to the aims of the research are stem cells - the earliest cells found in embryos, which have the potential to turn into any kind of tissue.

The long-term idea is to take cells from a patient and use them to create a cloned embryo rich in stem cells which will be genetically identical, ensuring that any tissue produced for transplant will not be rejected.

The cells would be 'harvested' after about a week and not implanted into a surrogate mother, which would be necessary to produce a cloned baby. The firm's spokesman Dr Robert Lanza insisted that this was not on the agenda, and no embryo would be developed beyond 14 days.

'Our intention is not to create cloned human beings, but rather to make lifesaving therapies for a wide range of human disease conditions, including diabetes, strokes, cancer, Aids and neurodegenerative disorders such as Parkinson's and Alzheimer's,' he insisted. 'But we are ten years away from seeing this used to treat people.' The firm has set up security cameras to stop anyone stealing its embryos and created an ethics board to consider the moral implications of its work.

Its president Dr Michael West denied that it amounted to the creation of life. 'Biologically, the entities we're creating are not an individual,' he said. 'They're only cellular life.' However, asked whether other countries would be able to use his technology to clone a human being, he admitted: ' Yes, I think that's true.' One of the project's cell donors was Judson Somerville, 40, a Texan doctor paralysed after a cycling accident.

He believes nerve cells from his own cloned embryo could end his paralysis, and was spurred on by the possibility of walking his daughter down the aisle when she marries.

'She doesn't want me getting her wedding gown caught up in my wheelchair,' he said.

But in Britain, the ProLife Alliance, which has campaigned against any form of human cloning, declared itself horrified by the development.

'If we are to retain any concept of human dignity, we must move as quickly as possible towards a global ban on all forms of human cloning,' it said. …