WASHINGTON — In an announcement that stirs visions of mermaids, minotaurs and other half-human creatures, Advanced Cell Technology Inc. said it has created human embryonic stem cells from the fusion of a human somatic cell with an enucleated egg from a cow.
The resulting "embryo" becomes progressively more human as it divides, with human proteins replacing bovine proteins until the only remnant of the cells' bovine origin is some mitochondrial DNA. The technology offers the opportunity to grow replacement body tissues and organs, but at the same time raises deeply felt ethical and moral questions.
Such potential for an ethical backlash against the technology led the company's president and CEO, Michael West, to announce the results of the research before they had been published in a scientific journal.
"Certainly, these technologies have the potential to be used for bad purposes," West said. "But I'm looking at a large mountain of opportunity. If we spent the time to think through these issues, we may find a way to climb the mountain and realize that opportunity in a way that is acceptable to everyone."
Technology Could Enable Autologous Transplants
West said he sees the technology as a means of creating transplantable tissues that are fully compatible with the patient who will receive the transplant. As a result, the technology could eliminate organ shortage issues and rejection problems.
The need for transplanted organs is so immense that the FDA is bending over backwards to find a way for xenotransplantation to work, West said. Transplant costs have been estimated at up to $400 billion a year in the United States.
"People with life-threatening illnesses are faced with receiving organs from cadavers or xenotransplants," he said. "We are proposing the optimum long term strategy: transplantation with cells and tissues that are your own."
However, the company wants to be sure that work is done under an acceptable ethical framework before investing in the research, West said.
In the U.K., for example, there has been a distinction made between reproductive cloning and therapeutic cloning, he noted. Reproductive cloning — aimed at creating a human being — is considered unethical and inappropriate. Therapeutic cloning, on the other hand — to develop tissues and other therapies — is considered ethical, under certain tightly controlled and monitored circumstances.
Such a framework does not exist in the U.S., and the company is "uncomfortable working in the void," West said. "We would like to see the NBAC [the National Bioethics Advisory Commission] take up the issue."
Last year, the NBAC stepped in when Scottish researchers announced they had created a sheep clone, Dolly.
The Biotechnology Industry Organization (BIO) supports a review of the research. BIO asked President Clinton to instruct the NBAC to examine the ethical issues surrounding embryonic stem cell research, in light of Advanced Cell Technology's advance as well as the recent discovery of human embryonic stem cells by Menlo Park, Calif.-based Geron Corp. (See BioWorld Today, Nov. 6, 1998, p. 1.)
"The initial reaction from the White House is positive," said Carl Feldbaum, president of BIO. "NBAC, of course, isn't the only venue, but it's an appropriate one."
Feldbaum credited West and his company for raising the issue of their research openly, even though the reaction to the news has been "a little rougher" than last week's news from Geron.
"The way they have done this has been appropriate, given the intensity of public interest," Feldbaum said. "There needs to be a discussion of the implications of stem-cell research."
West agreed, noting that he took his cue from the agreement in the 1970s by many scientists to impose a moratorium on themselves, in order to examine the safety and ethical implications of genetic engineering before rushing blindly ahead.
"The only way to keep trust in biotechnology is to be open and honest," West said. "We want to make sure that we do that." n