By Rick Weiss
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, June 7, 2006
Harvard University announced yesterday the launch of a privately funded, multimillion-dollar program to create cloned human embryos as sources of medically promising stem cells.
The collaborative effort, involving several Harvard-affiliated medical research centers, the New York Stem Cell Foundation and Columbia University, marks a new phase in the long-simmering U.S. culture war over stem cell research, pitting some of the nation's most prestigious institutions against a vocal conservative movement that opposes the work.
President Bush banned the use of federal funds for studies of new human embryonic stem cell colonies in August 2001, saying the creation and destruction of human embryos for research ran counter to a "culture of life." Since then, only the University of California at San Francisco has acknowledged doing research on cloning human embryos, also using private funding.
The field lost much of its luster earlier this year when Korean claims of having done the first successful derivation of stem cells from cloned human embryos proved fraudulent.
Harvard officials said they had developed their program over a two-year period under an umbrella of new ethics rules, and hoped to boost the field without unduly offending opponents.
"While we understand and respect the sincerely held beliefs of those who oppose the research, we are equally sincere in our belief that the life-and-death medical needs of countless suffering children and adults justifies moving forward with this research," said Harvard President Lawrence H. Summers.
The work, aspects of which have already begun, involves creating embryos not by the usual fusing of sperm and egg but by fusing a patient's body cell -- such as a skin cell -- with a human egg whose DNA has been removed. The resulting embryo would be genetically identical to the patient who donated the skin cell, so stem cells derived from it and transplanted into the patient would probably not be rejected by the immune system.
In one scenario, stem cells made from a person with sickle cell disease would have the disease-causing genetic defect corrected in the lab, be coaxed to become bone marrow cells and then be reinfused into the patient's marrow. There they could churn out a lifelong supply of healthy, non-sickling blood cells.
But the more immediate aim is to conduct basic research on the underlying causes of genetically complex diseases, scientists said.
"Clinical applications may be a decade or even more away," said George Q. Daley of Children's Hospital Boston, one of the study leaders along with Douglas A. Melton and Kevin C. Eggan of the Harvard Stem Cell Institute.
Much of the ethical wrangling leading up to yesterday's announcement related to the procurement of human eggs. Under rules ultimately approved by all eight ethics review boards with jurisdiction over the experiments, women will be reimbursed for expenses they directly incur in the process of donating eggs but will not be eligible for the thousands of dollars they could get for providing eggs to a fertility clinic to help other women get pregnant.
Egg donation, which involves a one-month hormone treatment and an outpatient surgical procedure, carries a small risk of serious complications. Harvard researchers said they hoped that women with relatives who suffer from the diseases that will be the initial focus of the work -- diabetes and blood disorders and, in years to follow, neurodegenerative diseases such as Lou Gehrig's -- might volunteer.
Other experiments will use eggs and embryos left from failed fertility treatments -- materials that the researchers said may be easier to obtain but that also may be of lower quality than fresh eggs.
Robert Lanza, scientific director of Advanced Cell Technology, said yesterday that his company is very close to starting similar work, having found two potential donors after running more than 100 ads in places as distant as Virginia. The company, with its headquarters in Alameda, Calif., and labs in Worcester, Mass., is also experimenting with methods of growing human embryos without eggs -- an approach that some opponents of stem cell work find ethically acceptable.
The House passed legislation last year allowing federal funding of stem cell studies on conventional embryos slated for destruction at fertility clinics but still precluding funding of embryo cloning. Senate consideration of the bill, promised by Majority Leader Bill Frist (R-Tenn.), could happen in the next few months, according to Hill aides tracking the issue.