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Cloning race is on again

By Elizabeth Weise, USA TODAY
February 26, 2006

Now that a South Korean scientist's work has been exposed as a fraud, U.S. institutions say they have new momentum for efforts to clone human embryos to produce stem cells, an achievement that could cure debilitating diseases.

Leaders at Harvard Stem Cell Institute, University of California-San Francisco, UCLA and private Advanced Cell Technologies in Worcester, Mass., say they are speeding up their research. Their work was slowed by federal restrictions and then by news that South Korea's Hwang Woo Suk had beaten them to the goal of cloning human embryos. (Related item: Only a few are up to the task)

Embryonic stem cells are nature's blank canvas, capable of producing any tissue in the body.

The goal of cloning stem cell lines, which is called "somatic cell nuclear transfer," is to create tissues matched to a patient so they can be used to treat or cure conditions such as Parkinson's and diabetes without being rejected by the body. Human embryonic stem cells were first isolated and cultured by researchers at the University of Wisconsin in 1998. The work was done with private money because of a 1996 congressional ban on the use of federal funds for human embryo research.

In an August 2001 speech, President Bush said he would allow federal funds to be used on already existing stem cell lines but would uphold the ban on experimenting with embryos using federal money. Bush and others opposed research using embryos to create stem cell lines because it required destruction of the embryos.

That decision had "a chilling effect" on research, says Arnold Kriegstein, director of the Program in Developmental and Stem Cell Biology at the University of California-San Francisco.

Universities and scientists were wary of inadvertently mixing federally funded research with work funded by other sources.

Harvard's Douglas Melton complained that the cell lines approved for research funds were harder to acquire, less useful and fewer in number than expected. Fewer than two dozen are available today.

Then came Hwang's first paper in 2004, which halted some lab work as scientists waited to hear how he had done it, not wanting to spend precious research time and dollars to, in effect, reinvent the wheel.

Outi Hovatta, a stem cell scientist at the Karolinska Institute in Sweden, says her group waited because of the uncertainty about the most effective techniques.

Then came Hwang's 2005 paper, which claimed to have achieved cloning of human embryos with far fewer eggs than previously had been required.

"We thought he had solved the biggest and most important issue" of how to successfully clone lines of human embryonic stem cells without requiring huge numbers of human eggs, says Irving Weissman, director of the Stanford Institute for Stem Cell Biology and Regenerative Medicine.

Korea announced plans for a World Stem Cell Hub to teach the techniques. Many scientists started planning for the future; it seemed the golden age of stem cell research was around the corner.

"There were a lot of people who didn't want to get into the game (earlier) because it was too challenging," says George Daley of Harvard Stem Cell Institute. South Korean reports "emboldened a lot of people to do the real medically important work."

Then last month came the announcement of Hwang's fraud and deception. With the playing field level once again, researchers are redoubling efforts to start their stem cell institutes.

In Sweden, Hovatta says her group will begin working on cloning stem cells "in the next few weeks." Labs in England already have permission to move forward.

For American scientists, developing techniques to clone stem cell lines means first securing private funds and then building non-government-funded labs. UCSF, Harvard and UCLA are building new labs.

Politically, support for expanding federal funding of research using newly created lines also picked up with the House passage of a 2005 bill lifting Bush's restrictions and a vote on a similar bill anticipated in the Senate in 2006.

Revelations that Hwang's claims were bogus was both a blow and a blessing, researchers say.

Now, says Robert Lanza, vice president of Advanced Cell Technologies, "the race is back on, and I think the U.S. has a second chance to do this right."

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