The human stem-cell lines it develops will be used to study diseases such as cancer, diabetes, Parkinson's and Lou Gehrig's disease. The research will take place at Stanford's new Institute for Cancer/Stem Cell Biology and Medicine. It will be privately funded and will avoid any conflict with President Bush's policy against using federal fund to create new stem-cell lines. The research will be led by Irving Weissman, a strong proponent of stem-cell research and acknowledged leader in the field.
Stem cells, found in all human embryos at their earliest stages, are capable of turning into any cells the body needs for development. This gives them the potential for replacing diseased or defective cells in people. But creating them requires the destruction of a tiny ball of cells called a blastocyst, or pre-embryo, and many who believe that life begins at conception consider this the destruction of a human being.
Weissman denies that the method researchers will use at Stanford, called "somatic cell nuclear transfer technology," is cloning. Many scientists make a distinction between this type of cloning, which is only intended to create stem cells, and reproductive cloning to create a new human being. "We are unanimously against human reproductive cloning," Weissman said.
In somatic cell nuclear transfer, the same technique Scottish researchers used in 1997 to create Dolly the sheep, the nucleus is removed from a non-reproductive cell -- neither an egg nor a sperm -- and inserted into a donated egg cell that has had its nucleus removed. A pulse of electricity causes the inserted nucleus to fuse into the egg and begin reproducing, creating at least the beginnings of an embryo.
Similar attempts to do human somatic cell nuclear transfer have failed. Researcher Roger Pederson at the University of California-San Francisco experimented with the technique in 2001 but in the end chose not to publish his results. Many have speculated that's because the technique did not work.
A Massachusetts company called Advanced Cell Technology created a furor when it claimed to have created clones using the technology, but in fact its embryos only were able to divide into a few cells.
Michael Manganiello, president of the Coalition for the Advancement of Medical Research, which supports stem-cell research, is encouraged by the Stanford move. "They're going to do it. It's just a matter of perfecting the technique."
The creation of lines of human embryonic stem cells can't be done using federal money under a ban issued by Bush in August 2001. Only research on stem-cell lines created before that date is eligible for federal funds. Bush has repeatedly stated his opposition to human cloning.