Stanford University Announces Human Embryonic Stem Cell Project

AP Biotechnology Writer

SAN FRANCISCO (AP) – Stanford University announced its intention to develop human embryonic stem cells through nuclear transfer technology, becoming the first U.S. institution of higher education to publicly embrace an effort many consider to be cloning.

The intent of the project is to produce stem cells for medical research.

“Our avowed goal is to advance science,” Stanford medical professor Irving Weissman, who will direct the school’s effort, said Tuesday. “For any group to stay out of the action and wait for someone else to do it because of political reasons is wrong.”

Weissman, and the university, emphatically denied that the project involves cloning embryos. He said Stanford’s work would involve taking DNA from diseased adult human cells and transferring them into eggs, then growing them in the lab.

The cells would then be harvested, destroying the blastocysts before they’re implanted, Weissman said. He said Stanford will use the stem cells only to study disease, and will not implant any cells to be grown into organs or other body parts.

Many other researchers say this is a distinction without a difference – that this kind of nuclear transfer, which would create an exact genetic replica of the adult cell donor if allowed to grow, is in fact cloning.

The American Association of Medical Colleges, of which Stanford is a member, defines it this way:

“Somatic Cell Nuclear Transfer (SCNT) or therapeutic cloning involves removing the nucleus of an unfertilized egg cell, replacing it with the material from the nucleus of a `somatic cell’ (a skin, heart, or nerve cell, for example), and stimulating this cell to begin dividing.”

Weissman said his planned research is “not even close” to cloning.

Similar research has been done at the University of California at San Francisco, which ultimately closed down its program as its lead researcher was preparing to leave for England, where stem cell research is more accepted. The school didn’t publicly disclose its two-year therapeutic cloning project and acknowledged it only after a story in The Wall Street Journal.

The research also been done at Advanced Cell Technology in Worcester, Massachusetts, which was roundly criticized after announcing preliminary results from its research.

Ronald Green, chairman of Advanced Cell’s ethics advisory committee and a religion professor at Princeton University, applauded Stanford’s announcement, but said “cloning” is in fact the mostly widely accepted term for what Weissman’s team plans to do.

“We’ve been struggling with names for this technology – I’ve favored ‘therapeutic cloning,”’ Green said. He added: “Almost any terminology is inadequate to explain the complex science.”

Stanford’s stem cell work will be part of the new Institute for Cancer/Stem Cell Biology and Medicine, launched with a $12 million anonymous donation to the school. Much of the institute’s research will be geared to treating cancer. Any stem cells created will be shared with outside researchers, many of whom complain of inadequate access to currently available stem cell lines.

Scientists believe embryonic stem cells, which are created in the first days of pregnancy and develop into all the cells that comprise a human body, can be used to treat many illnesses.

Embryos must be destroyed to harvest the stem cells, and some abortion opponents and others oppose the research.

Last year, President George W. Bush limited federal funding to stem cell lines created before Aug. 9, 2001. Of those 78 stem cell colonies worldwide that the Bush administration has said are eligible for federally funded research, only about a dozen are in good enough shape to use in experiments.