Stanford University announced yesterday it would create an institute to develop medical therapies from human embryonic stem cells, the promising but controversy-laden cells found inside human embryos.
The seemingly low-key announcement stirred a tempest late in the day when it became clear that the university might produce cloned human embryos as one source of stem cells. Although such work is legal in private settings, it is even more contentious than research on embryos made by in vitro fertilization techniques—in part because of concern that a cloned embryo might be transferred to a woman’s womb to grow into a cloned baby. Some members of the Senate tried unsuccessfully this year to outlaw all human cloning research, and no university has said it is currently conducting such research.
University officials were vague at first yesterday as to whether human embryos would be cloned at the institute. An initial news release made no mention of cloning, but later, when the Associated Press reported that cloning research would take place, a university spokeswoman denied it.
“We’re not cloning embryos, and we’re not going to clone embryos,” said Stanford spokeswoman Ruthann Richter.
However, at a news conference at Stanford later in the evening, scientists acknowledged that embryos maybe produced by cloning at some time.
“The state of California has said nuclear transfer [the scientific term for cloning] is an acceptable and legal technology and in fact will be supported and funded by the state,” said Paul Berg, a Stanford Nobel laureate. “Cloning is not a nasty word.”
Berg and others emphasized that the university had no intention of growing cloned babies.
Cloning involves the injection of genetic material from a body cell into an egg cell whose own DNA has been removed. Under the proper conditions, that newly created entity can begin to divide into what is effectively an early embryo.
Scientists at Stanford and other research institutions around the world hope to retrieve from such embryos human embryonic stem cells, which have the capacity to morph into all kinds of tissues. They want to turn the cells into neurons for people with Parkinson’s, pancreas cells for people with diabetes, and heart cells for people with heart disease.
Although stem cells can be retrieved from conventional IVF embryos discarded by fertility clinics, many scientists suspect that stem cells from cloned embryos may be more medically useful and may reveal more about genetic diseases than other kinds of stem cells. Some suspect that stem cells from cloned embryos may be less likely to be rejected by the immune systems of patients who may receive them as therapeutic transplants.
Other scientists, including some at Stanford, have said they believe they can learn more about genetic diseases by studying stem cells that harbor the genetic mutations underlying those diseases. One way of doing that would be to make a cloned embryo from an egg and a cell taken from the body of someone with that disease.
The new institute, which will aim to create stem cell therapies for cancer and other diseases, is to be established with $12 million from an anonymous donor. Under a Bush administration policy announced last year, federally funded researchers wishing to work with human embryonic stem cells must limit their endeavors to a small number of approved cell colonies created before Aug. 9, 2001. But because the Stanford institute will be privately funded, researchers there will be able to create and experiment on new colonies.
The institute will be headed by Stanford biologist Irving Weissman, who said last night that several animal experiments would have to be conducted before considering proceeding to human embryo cloning. Even then, he said, the work could go forward only if a university science and ethics committee approved the experiments.
By Rick Weiss