Last night’s episode of Eleventh Hour took a plot from the first episode and took it to the next level: From a failed human cloning experiment to success. We learn within the first ten minutes of the episode that Dr. Jacob Hood’s nemeiss, the evil geneticist known as Gepetto, has cloned humans, implanted the embryonic clones into women, and successfully brought them to term. We learn later that Gepetto cloned the babies with her own DNA so she can harvest one of them for a new pancreas, which she needs to live. Of course taking a pancreas means killing the baby, so Gepetto would be guilty of murder along with any number of additional violations of the law.
While the nature of Gepetto’s actual disease escaped me, it’s worth taking a moment to think about whether she actually chose the most efficient route to curing herself. Her goal was to create transplant organs that her body wouldn’t reject. Since the organs from a clone would share her DNA, her body would probably have accepted them. But rather than taking the immoral and illegal route of making cloned babies, she might have considered therapuetic cloning instead, a method which focuses on stem cells instead of whole people, and which promises to be a) not murderous and b) more efficient anyway.
Theoretically it goes like this: In the first phase, scientists take an unfertilized egg cell (oocyte) and replace its DNA with adult DNA, and then “activate” the embryo (often with electricity) to make it start growing and splitting. Once the egg has divided into roughly 200 cells, they move to the second step, isolating the stem cells and trying to get them to grow and replicate for 12-16 weeks. Then, third, they manipulate the stem cells so they differentiate into cells appropriate for different organs, and finall inject those stem cells into the organ to repair the organ.
Currently, the third step is the furthest along. University of Wisconsin scientists have gotten stem cells to differentiate into brain tissue, and others have made cardiace tissue. But the first step, getting a human oocyte to grow and divide into a blastocyst, was an obstacle for years, until a California company called Stemagen had a huge breakthrough in 2006 (they published the results in 2008). I talked to their spokesperson, Roman Jimenez this morning to get a better handle on exactly what they did.
Scientists had successfully swapped the DNA in an oocyte for adult DNA in all sorts of animals for decades. They’d gotten the egg to grow and divide in pigs, mice, and other creatures, but never in people. Stemagen’s idea was to maximize what Jimenez called “egg quality.” They went to fertility clinics and asked couples who were recieving donated egg cells if they would be willing to contribute some extra eggs for science. When a recipient agreed, they then they asked the donors of those egg cells the same question. In the end they recieved 25 eggs from three 20-24 year old healthy women. Using those eggs, they succeeded in implanting adult DNA, and provoking five of the those eggs into separating up to about 120 cells.
The breakthrough led to massive media coverage, condemnation by President Bush and the Pope, and a thirty minute segment on the Today show. The development meant one of the major hurdles for therapuetic stem cell therapy had been cleared. What’s still missing is that second step, the isolation phase. Scientists have not yet managed to get the stem cells from the blastocyst to grow and thrive. Jimenez said Stemagen did try, back in 2006, to get the five sucesses to this stage, but the blastocytes didn’t live long enough.
I should point out that all of this work is done in the lab, and indeed, that the whole point of the research is to develop a way to make useful stem cells for medicine that won’t require anything awful like what Gepetto did on Eleventh Hour. Direct human cloning remains highly controversial on moral grounds, but it may be scientifically doable. Last week Cloning and Stem Cells published results from Robert Lanza that showed that Stemagen’s technique not only led to a blastocyst, but that it also lead to a genetically viable embryo that could theoretically have been implanted and brought to term. Lanza’s experiemnt showed that the adult DNA injected into the oocyte had actually turned back the clock on itself to revert to an embryonic state, making the egg cell nearly identical to natural embryos used to implant into women at fertility clinics. The results signal that while people may not want human cloning to happen, it’s scientifically possible to do.