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A team of Harvard researchers has asked the University to approve the cloning of human embryos for stem cell research, and another team will soon seek clearance for similar work. If approved, either team could become the first group to create cloned human cells in the United States.
The request itself is almost certainly the first of its kind at Harvard, and may even be the first in the country, said Charles G. Jennings, executive director of the Harvard Stem Cell Institute which is affiliated with both research teams, in an interview yesterday.
Stem cells are undifferentiated cells found in embryos, whose potential to transform into specialized cells make them prime candidates for the study of many diseases. But stem cell research has elicited controversy because some feel that the destruction of embryos during research amounts to killing human life.
Earlier this year, Douglas A. Melton, co-director of the institute, and Harvard biologist Kevin C. Eggan appealed to the University’s ethical review boards to use stem cells extracted from cloned human embryos to study the development of diabetes, Parkinson’s disease and Alzheimer’s disease.
Melton, who is also the Cabot professor of the natural sciences, created 17 new stem cell lines from existing human embryos earlier this year.
The review boards, which are charged with ensuring the safety of human subjects in experiments, will take several months to consider the application, according to a University press release.
Melton and Eggan’s proposal will likely need the approval of at least three separate institutional review boards, one for each phase of the experiment. In addition to these boards, their research will also be considered by a special University provost’s committee, which reviews proposed stem cell research and the public controversy surrounding it.
The second team, led by doctors at the Harvard-affiliated Children’s Hospital, will petition their in-house ethics review board for the go-ahead on their research. Dr. George Q. Daley and Dr. Leonard I. Zon want to examine blood diseases, with a long-term focus on developing healthy therapeutic cells to transplant into sick patients after rehabilitation.
None of the researchers were available for comment yesterday.
While the Bush administration has banned the use of federal fundsfor research on new stem cell lines, South Korean researchers announced in February the first documented stem cell extraction from cloned human embryos. And British researchers are currently working to clone human cells.
“It’s a terrible disappointment that we’re reading about it from other countries,” said Institute Co-Director David T. Scadden in February. “It’s imperative that we be able to use this technology in the U.S.”
Jennings said while U.S. researchers can still become integrally involved in the stem cell field, the lack of federal monetary support has had a chilling effect on research.
“If the present restrictions continue, there is a danger in the long term that the U.S. could fall behind,” Jennings said.
Although the institute—which was launched in April—has had “strong support” from private donors, Jennings said, allowing this work at major public facilities such as the National Institutes of Health would greatly accelerate its progress.
Governmental support for stem cell work has also become a major issue in the presidential election, as the candidates have weighed in on the ethics and the potential benefits of the research.
Human cloning has also been a charged issue, especially reproductive cloning—the implantation of cloned embryos into a surrogate mother to grow into a viable organism. While this type of cloning is presently legal in the United States, it is prohibited by University policy.
But Jennings stressed that the research the two Harvard teams want to pursue stops far short of the type of work that produced Dolly the cloned sheep.
“We have no idea whether [reproductive cloning] would work in humans—it would be grossly irresponsible to try, and we’re completely opposed to it,” Jennings said.
In fact, the institute supports a proposed law banning reproductive cloning to highlight the difference between reproductive cloning and human embryo cloning for stem cell research.
“It would help to have a legal ban to separate the issues,” Jennings said. “They are fundamentally different.”
Most respondents in a Virginia Commonwealth University survey released yesterday said that they support embryonic stem cell research, but oppose human reproductive cloning and human cloning for research purposes.
—Staff writer Katharine A. Kaplan can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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