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Researchers Race to Make Stem Cells from Embryos

STEVE INSKEEP, host:

From NPR News this is MORNING EDITION. I'm Steve Inskeep.

RENEE MONTAGNE, host:

And I'm Renee Montagne.

Several U.S. teams are involved in an international scientific race. The goal is to be the first to derive stem cells from cloned human embryos. Harvard University is expected to join the competition today. For a while last year, it seemed as if scientists in South Korea had already won, but their work turned out to fraudulent.

NPR's Joe Palca recently visited the University of California, San Francisco. Where they are already hard at work trying to win the prize.

JOE PALCA reporting:

Considering all the hype around stem cells you might expect the head of the UC San Francisco Stem Cell Institute to say that embryonic stem cells from cloned embryos will cure disease and let the paralyzed walk. But Arnold Kriegstein doesn't take that tack. Instead Kriegstein says, the real value of making stem cells this way, is because it gives you a powerful research tool.

Mr. ARNOLD KRIEGSTEIN (Head of Stem Cell Institute, University of California, San Francisco): You can create a cell line based on the DNA of a patient with an inherited genetic disease.

PALCA: And then use those cells to study the disease, even test new drugs. In ways you never could in a living patient. But first you have to get that patient's DNA into the embryonic stem cells, and to do that you need to use cloning.

Remember to clone an embryo or to use somatic cell nuclear transfer, as scientists prepare to describe it, you take the DNA from an adult, or somatic cell, and put it into an egg, from which most of the DNA has been removed. If the egg starts dividing, in a few days it should be possible to extract embryonic stem cells. Kriegstein says that what he and his colleagues have spent the past year of more getting ready to do.

Mr. KRIEGSTEIN: The initial attempts will be in a relatively small laboratory with just the bare bones equipment that's necessary to do the cell transplantation work and to culture those embryos.

PALCA: The reason this is such a bare bones operation is that it have to be done without a single penny of federal money. That means the university has to raise private funds to pay for everything, from microscopes to file cabinets. To find the cloning lab, you go down a non-descript hall, through a back stairway, down another non-descript hall, and enter a non-descript lab.

Mr. KRIEGSTEIN: This is a very small, narrow room that could be a big closet -with two microscopes - three microscopes; one, two computers; several shelves; a map on the wall of the 50 states; and a file cabinet.

PALCA: But even if you had the flashiest lab with the most modern equipment, you'd still face a major hurdle, getting a supply of human eggs. They are not available at the corner market. Right now, there aren't many options. You can look for volunteers willing to take the powerful drugs and undergo the surgical procedures needed to retrieve eggs suitable for cloning experiments.

And oh, by the way, you can't pay the women for their time and trouble because most ethical rules prohibit that; or you can go to fertility clinics where women anxious to have a baby are having those procedure done anyway. Naturally, women going for fertility treatments don't want to give up their eggs, except possibly in one special case.

Ms. ELENA GATES (Obstetrician/Gynecologist, UC San Francisco Fertility Clinic): The egg that we have available for our researchers are eggs that failed to fertilize in the process of fertility treatment.

PALCA: Elena Gates is an obstetrician/gynecologist with UC San Francisco Fertility Clinic. Gates says in a typical week there could be as many as 30 of these failed to fertilized eggs.

Ms. GATES: And those would be available for the stem cells nuclear transfer experiments.

PALCA: Now, it's not at all clear if these failed to fertilized eggs can be use to make cloned embryos, but for now the San Francisco scientists have elected to try.

Ms. DIANE BERNSTEIN (Research Coordinator, UC San Francisco Fertility Clinic): I was just going to give you a report for this week, if that's okay?

PALCA: Diane Bernstein is the research coordinator at the Fertility Clinic. Each day she lets the scientists over at the research lab know whether there are any of the failed fertilized eggs available. And frequently there aren't because many women don't agree to donate.

Ms. BERNSTEIN: There where retrievals today, but no consents on any of those people. So you won't get any eggs tomorrow.

PALCA: Bernstein tells the scientists she may have better news later in the week. Even if scientists had an unlimited supply of healthy eggs from willing donors, it's not certain they'll succeed in making cloned embryos, or if they do, deriving stem cells from those cloned embryos. South Korean scientist had superb equipment and a huge supply of eggs and they apparently failed.

Renee Reijo Pera leads the UC San Francisco team trying to make stem cells from cloned embryos.

Dr. RENEE REIJO PERA (Department of Obstetrics, Gynecology and Reproductive Sciences, UC San Francisco): We are not completely confident on any of this. This is really science. We're really pushing forward to understand if there's any potential of the failed fertilized eggs. We're really at the beginning stages.

PALCA: But Reijo Pera is convinced the work has enormous potential. The University is too; it's renovating a 1,000 square feet of lab space for the cloning work and has begun to raise money for an entire new building.

UC San Francisco feels the prize of embryonic stem cells from cloned embryos is within its reach.

Joe Palca, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Joe Palca is a science correspondent for NPR. Since joining NPR in 1992, Palca has covered a range of science topics — everything from biomedical research to astronomy. He is currently focused on the eponymous series, "Joe's Big Idea." Stories in the series explore the minds and motivations of scientists and inventors. Palca is also the founder of NPR Scicommers – A science communication collective.
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