Simple Questions/ Challenging Answers

Simple Questions/ Challenging Answers

Is the product of a cloned cow, cloned milk? Or real milk? Is the offspring of a cloned cow and a “natural” bull, a half-clone? And then when they mix again, as cows and bulls of all persuasions are apt to do, do we get quarter-clones? Three-quarter clones? The parlor game must obviously stop in a very few generations, but the melody lingers on. Like genetically modified seeds that have jumped the fence and are mixing and matching in the wild, once the progression begins, it’s a little hard to follow.

So now let’s look at some interesting challenges that emerge on the human scale. In the United States, women are free to pursue in vitro fertilization, and American clinics have really gotten good at it.

When they treat young women – who might be motivated because they are about to undergo chemotherapy or other medical procedures that might compromise fertility – it is not unusual for a woman to emerge with a dozen or more viable eggs. Today we know better than to implant more than two at any one attempt, and so we find ourselves with hundreds of thousands of fertilized eggs on ice. No one knows exactly how many, because while the federal government will only permit federal research funds to be expended on the stem cell lines derived as of August 9, 2001, when President George W. Bush issued his Executive Order, the government does not regulate this particular end of the techno-human reproductive supply chain.

Not so with the Brits. I have just returned from the international BIO conference, where I had the great good fortune to moderate a panel of fellows including the illustrious Dr. Lyle Armstrong, who heads the Institute for Human Genetics at Newcastle University. With the recent passage of an update to the UK Human Fertilisation and Embryology Act of 1990, his group has now proceeded on to something rather controversial. Under the original act, the government had regulatory control over private citizens’ frozen embryos, which required that they be tracked and that each private citizen make a decision about these “frozen potentials” within a reasonable time frame. No frozen potential went unnoticed. But that’s not the story.

Despite the absolute tracking of each and every embryo, the UK permits stem cell research on any viable line. This is where Dr. Armstrong and the latest revision of the act enter the picture. And wouldn’t you know it? So do the cows.

It turns out that the UK researchers can get only a few human eggs each week, while he – or rather his lab – can get perhaps 200 per day from local cows. To quote: “We have a lot of cows.” And here… it gets interesting.

Researchers may now take an animal (cow) cell, remove its nucleus, and inject it with a nucleus extracted from a human cell.

Under the new approvals, researchers may now take an animal cell, remove its nucleus, and inject it with a nucleus extracted from a human cell. This suits Dr. Armstrong just fine. He and his fellow scientists can then proceed to study how early cells develop. The law determines that these cells may not be permitted to live beyond fourteen days, although Dr. Armstrong tells us that they seldom live half that long in any event. Still, in that short time, these cow-cell — human-nucleus hybrids give scientists a direct way to study cell differentiation at its earliest stages.

Researchers may now take an animal (cow) cell, remove its nucleus, and inject it with a nucleus extracted from a human cell.

To date, Dr. Armstrong’s group has created 271 human–animal hybrid embryos. By his estimation, they are 99.9% human, 0.1% cow.

So where does that leave us? I asked Armstrong directly if we could FedEx him our extras to save him the involvement of the cow, and he very specifically indicated that after eighteen-vplus hours, the human eggs were no longer of use. And yes, if we found another way for him to do the research, he would.

Expediency. Cows. Humans. The inexorable call of science. And there are a whole number of people who find this entire conversation simultaneously wonderful and questionable. It’s appropriate to quote the name of this BIO panel, the brain child of Dr. Mike Fisher, the life sciences adviser for UK Trade and Investment in the United States: “It’s life, Jim, But Not As We Know It …”

Moira A. Gunn, Ph.D., hosts “BioTech Nation” on NPR Talk and NPR Live. She’s the author of Welcome to BioTech Nation… My Unexpected Odyssey into the Land of Small Molecules, Lean Genes, and Big Ideas cited by the Library Journal as being among the “Best Science Books of 2007.”


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