Human Embryos Cloned by U.S. Company, But Don't Survive

Bijal P. Trivedi
National Geographic Today
November 26, 2001

Scientists at a U.S. biotech company announced Sunday that they have cloned the first human embryos. The company said it intends to use such embryos to provide an endless source of stem cells—which can develop into any type of adult cell in the human body—for the treatment of human diseases.

However, some experts consider the research a complete failure because the cloned embryos all died very early, long before reaching the multi-cell, or blastocyst, stage at which stem cells could be harvested.

"This is not a breakthrough or even a scientific contribution," said Nobel laureate Paul Berg of Stanford University, a frequent consultant on federal policy regarding stem cell research, human cloning, and biotechnology. "The experiment was a failure and does not warrant the amount of press coverage it has received," he added.

The company, Advanced Cell Technologies (ACT), based in Worcester, Massachusetts, said the technique could ultimately produce a source of healthy new tissue for transplantation into patients whose own cells had been damaged or destroyed by disease or injury.

The research has generated intense controversy because if a cloned embryo were implanted into a woman's uterus, it could potentially grow into a human being—a human clone.

"Our intention is not to create cloned human beings," researcher Robert P. Lanza of ACT said in a press release. "But rather to make lifesaving therapies for a wide range of human disease conditions, including diabetes, stroke, cancer, AIDS, and neurodegenerative disorders such as Parkinson's and Alzheimer's disease."

A bill to ban human cloning is already under consideration in the Senate. If the bill becomes law, the penalty for engaging in such research would be a U.S. $1 million fine and a 10-year jail sentence.

Widespread Concerns

Many people who oppose the research argue that creating and destroying embryos for the purpose of producing "spare parts" is unethical.

Currently, the only way to obtain embryonic stem cells is by creating embryos. Embryonic stem cells can be harvested only from embryos that are less than five days old. After that period, the cells begin to specialize.

"We're not talking about little embryos with hands and feet," Michael West, the president of ACT, told Tim Russert on the NBC News show Meet The Press. "We're talking about a cluster of cells, far smaller than the head of a pin with no body cells of any kind."

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