What Do You Mean…Cloning?
The word clone means to make an identical copy of something and this is exactly what scientists are doing with stem cells. Do you recall when a sheep named Dolly was created as a genetic copy of another adult sheep? If you don’t recall, in 1996, a process known as ‘somatic cell nuclear transfer’ took place to produce Dolly. For this to occur the nucleus of an egg cell was removed and replaced with the nucleus of a cell from another adult ewe; the nucleus included the ewe’s DNA. Once this was inserted inside of the egg, the adult cell nucleus was reprogrammed by the host cell. The egg was then artificially stimulated to divide like an embryo fertilized by sperm. Once it had divided multiple times in the culture, the cell created a blastocyst with practically identical DNA to the original donor.
In essence, they’d created a genetic clone.
There Are Two Types of Genetic Clones
After genetic cloning has taken place, scientists must decide what they’ll be doing next. There are two options, which include:
- Reproductive Cloning
- Therapeutic Cloning
Reproductive cloning is essentially the process used to create Dolly the sheep. After the blastocyst was created, they inserted it into the womb of an ewe. From there, it was able to develop and be birthed. In short, reproductive cloning is the process of creating a living duplicate of an existing animal. As you can imagine, there is a lot of controversy behind doing something like this. To date, reproductive cloning has been used to make cows, mice, cats, dogs, rabbits, and more.
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The First Human Embryonic Stem Cell Clone
In 2013, scientists created embryonic stem cells from a cloned human embryo. The attempt had been made multiple times with no success, but this time around it worked. Shoukrat Mitalipov, a biology specialist at the Oregon Health and Science University, created what is known as “patient-specific embryonic stem cells”. The scientist and his team used eggs from young adult donors recruited through a university advertisement.
Within just a few months, four cloned embryos engineered by Mitaipov started to grow. A small section of cells was removed and put into another culture plate, where it continued to grow.
Researchers used inactivated Senai virus to combine the egg and body cells. In addition, an electric jolt was used to start the embryonic development. Their first few tries created six blastocysts with no stable cell lines, so they added caffeine to protect the cell from premature activation.
And Then Began The Testing
Once the cell lines were created, the scientists began testing. The first cell lines were developed using fetal skin cells from an 8-month-old with Leigh syndrome. This was done to prove that embryonic stem cells could be created from mature donor cells. The process was relatively efficient, as it didn’t require a lot of eggs, however, it was expensive. Egg donors received $3000 to $7000 for participating, which is a hefty price – even for research.
Are There Ethical Concerns?
If you thought for one second that there were ethical concerns, then you’re right. The process is considered unethical because it destroys embryos. Not only that, but some people believe that it preys on the poor, as they are the most likely to participate in the research. The public is also afraid that such technology may be used to create human clones, but we’re quite a ways from that.
Scientists are now focusing on creating patient-specific cell lines. In short, it means that reprogrammed adult cells will be converted into an embryonic state to create induced pluripotent stem cells. The latter does not require the destruction or cloning of embryos, nor does it require eggs. However, we’re also still a ways away from being able to use induced pluripotent stem cells effectively. Once they’re up to par, these stem cells can be used to answer basic research questions regarding certain diseases and be used for drug screening.
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What About Regulations?
There are quite a number of hoops and loops to jump over when it comes to cloning. Many believe that cloning human beings creates ethical and scientific risks that our society just shouldn’t tolerate. Back in 1997, the National Bioethics Advisory Commission deemed that it was “morally unacceptable to attempt to create a child using somatic cell nuclear transfer cloning”. In 2002, President Bush’s Council on Bioethics wrote a report saying that reproductive cloning should be banned, but was okay with therapeutic cloning.
To date, there are no federal laws that ban human cloning in the United States. However, there are fifteen states than ban reproductive cloning. Three states prohibit the use of public funds for it altogether.
The Patients First Act of 2017 has the goal of promoting stem cell research but wants the cells used to be ethically obtained. They want to ensure that cloning research is only used to better understand diseases and therapies.
Stem Cell Cloning
There are certainly several benefits to stem cell cloning, especially therapeutic cloning. A major benefit is that the cells extracted are pluripotent, which in short means that they can treat diseases by replacing damaged cells. This approach also means that the risk of immunological rejection is lowered because the patient will be using his or her own genetic material.
The downside is that it requires multiple attempts to create a practicable egg; sometimes hundreds. Stem cell cloning also involves the destruction of human embryos, but some argue that the benefits outweigh the few downsides.
Overall, we have not yet been successful at cloning a human being. However, there is still a possibility for this to occur. While most scientists are for therapeutic cloning and against reproductive cloning, it’s still very possible for something to slip through the cracks.