Fluid containing a microscopic oocyte, or egg. Researchers in New York… (Francine Orr / Los Angeles…)
Scientists announced Wednesday that they had created stem cells from human clones, adding DNA from adult cells to the genetic material in unfertilized eggs. The cells weren't normal -- they contained three sets of chromosomes: two from the adult cell and an extra from the egg. They would not be fit for use in stem cell therapies. Still, their creation marked a first in stem cell research and may point the way toward treatments for diseases such as diabetes, Alzheimer's or Parkinson's.
Another notable thing about the research, which was published in the journal Nature: The team paid the women who provided the eggs used in the study, a practice that has been forbidden by ethical guidelines from scientific organizations around the world. Some ethicists have argued that paying women for their eggs might create an exploitative trade. But in this case, it may be the reason why the researchers were able to collect enough healthy eggs (they used 270 in all) to get their historic result.
Teams have "tried to recruit donors on altruistic grounds and failed," said New York Stem Cell Foundation researcher and study co-leader Dieter Egli, during a news conference on Tuesday. "That's why we knew it was not the way to go in New York."
Dr. Robert Lanza, a stem cell researcher with Advanced Cell Technology in Worcester, Mass., told The Times that in his experience, it can take a year to get one donor, and perhaps five to 10 eggs, lined up.
"One year we put out an ad. The problem was, we got these patients, they'd say sure, and then they'd see the poster down the hall about getting paid [to donate eggs] for reproduction," he said. "It's hard to get volunteers. At best you'll get a handful of eggs."
To avoid exerting undue influence on the donors, the New York team paid them $8,000 for the time and burden of donation (which does pose risks), then allowed them to decide later if they wanted their eggs to be used for research or for reproduction. That way, the conversation about payment was already over before any talk about scientific research began.
In an article that accompanied the New York study in Nature, medical ethicist Jan Helge Solbakk of the University of Oslo praised the researchers for their approach. "The authors' approach represents the first step towards acknowledging women as genuine participants -- co-producers even -- in the generation of new knowledge," he wrote.
Marcy Darnovsky, associate executive director of the Center for Genetics and Society in Berkeley, Calif., saw it differently.
"This new form of research cloning ... still represents a highly speculative approach to stem cell research. We should not put the health of young women at risk, especially to get raw materials for such exploratory investigations,” she said in a statement released late Wednesday in conjunction with leaders of other women's health organizations.
Click here to access the study and click here to access the accompanying article from Nature (subscription required). The statement from the Center for Genetics and Society is available here.