University Sought to Clone Human Embryos
Fri May 24, 7:10 PM ET

By Andrew Quinn

SAN FRANCISCO (Reuters) - The University of California-San Francisco confirmed on Friday that it had hosted a large-scale drive to clone human embryos for therapeutic purposes, the first major public institution to acknowledge pursuing the controversial research.

The UCSF project, which began three years ago and has since been temporarily shelved, sought to derive embryonic stem cells for medical research, not to clone human beings.

But the university's research work, which was reported on Friday by the Wall Street Journal, looked likely to fuel debate in the U.S. Senate where lawmakers are considering moves to outlaw all human cloning.

"The general point is these experiments and others like them underscore for us the importance of proceeding forward and not criminalizing science," said Keith Yamamoto, vice dean for research at the university's medical school.

UCSF's announcement makes it the first major U.S. university to acknowledge an embryo cloning program, which thus far has only publicly been undertaken by Advanced Cell Technology, a biotechnology firm.

The UCSF project was led by embryologist Roger Pedersen, a leading scientist who subsequently relocated to Britain to escape the increasingly inflamed U.S. debate over the morality of cloning and stem cell research.

Pedersen's work on therapeutic cloning was funded with state money and by the biotechnology company Geron Corp. in order to comply with a 1995 law which bars the use of federal funds for studies in which embryos are destroyed.

According to UCSF, Pedersen's research group conducted two sets of embryo-cloning experiments, one in early 1999 and another in early 2001.

The scientists sought to transplant the DNA of adult human cells into eggs from donors at the university fertility clinic, a process aimed at producing blastocysts -- the earliest stage of embryonic development -- from which stem cells could be harvested.

The goal was to obtain stem cells genetically identical to the adult DNA donor and could then be used to develop possible treatments for everything from Alzheimer's and Parkinson's diseases to diabetes, cancer and spinal injuries.

Pedersen said the cloning approach to stem cell research could "prove uniquely valuable for developing human therapies."

"An obvious benefit would be obtaining embryonic stem cells that were immunologically compatible with individual patients," he said in a UCSF news release.

NO CONCLUSIVE RESULTS

University officials said the project failed to produce conclusive results and had been shelved -- at least for now.

But while no therapeutic cloning research is currently under way at UCSF, officials said the university, already at the forefront of U.S. stem cell research, stood ready to resume the cloning studies if conditions permit.

"The field of human embryonic stem cell research is in its infancy and will require years of study in laboratories throughout the world," said Yamamoto said. "The best chance for achieving success is to engage and fuel the public research enterprise."

University officials said they had not publicized the project out of deference to Pedersen, who felt ongoing research should not be made public until it had definitive results.

But the Wall Street Journal's account of the university's cloning efforts, based on documents obtained under the California Public Records Act, looked likely to spur new debate on the ethics of human cloning.

That debate is already well under way in Washington, where the Senate looks likely to take up competing legislation that would either bar all cloning outright or allow therapeutic cloning for medical research.

Foes of cloning say it is immoral to create an embryo only to destroy it. But advocates of therapeutic cloning say it is a promising avenue of stem cell research that could lead to treatments for a wide range of diseases.

The House of Representatives last year passed a bill, strongly backed by President Bush and anti-abortion groups, that would ban all types of human cloning. The Senate debate is being heavily lobbied and is the source of a number of emotional advertising campaigns.

Yamamoto said therapeutic cloning projects like that at UCSF promised too many scientific benefits, particularly in the research of human genetic disease, to be scrapped without serious consideration of the consequences.

"We understand almost nothing about the early stages of most human genetic diseases. We wait for symptoms, and often by that time there lots of things have gone wrong," he said.

"(With this research) we might be able to find diagnostics very very early that would tell us whether or not the disease is there .... and potentially even therapeutic treatments."