This openness contrasts with the situation at Harvard, where several scientists applied for permission to do nuclear-transfer research more than two years ago. According to Massachusetts state law, the researchers must get their experiments approved by institutional review boards. But whereas the British approval procedure is largely transparent, neither Harvard officials nor scientists proposing experiments would discuss with Technology Review their research plans or the details of the review process until after it is completed.
Across the Atlantic, government support has helped two U.K. groups charge to the forefront of therapeutic-cloning research. Alison Murdoch, Miodrag Stojkovic, and collaborators at the University of Newcastle upon Tyne have probably made more progress in nuclear transfer than any other researchers. Murdoch’s team received permission from the U.K. authority to start experiments in August 2004 and announced that it had cloned an early-stage embryo (it hasn’t yet isolated stem cells) soon after Hwang published his now retracted paper announcing an efficient cloning technology. At the University of Edinburgh, Wilmut also intends to do nuclear transfer. He put his plans on hold after the Hwang scandal, but he is now seeking permission to start a new set of experiments, using animal eggs rather than human eggs.
In a lab high on a hill overlooking the San Francisco Bay, Renee Reijo Pera sits at her desk listening to the sounds of construction. The space next to her lab has been entirely gutted; ladders and scattered extension cords have replaced the orderly rows of microscopes and freezers. Upon completion in August, the space will become the home of UCSF’s new therapeutic-cloning research program. It will effectively be a replica of Reijo Pera’s current lab, stocked with the same sort of equipment, but purchased with private funds.
UCSF hopes the new facility will help it become a frontrunner in therapeutic cloning. The university was the first in the United States to attempt nuclear transfer, albeit unsuccessfully, in the 1990s. “Now we hope to start again where those studies left off,” says Arnold Kriegstein, director of the university’s Institute for Stem Cell and Tissue Biology.
Reijo Pera and colleagues started cloning experiments at another off-site facility in April, possibly the first U.S. group to try human nuclear transfer since Lanza’s team halted its work in 2004. In the UCSF lab, they will use “fail to fertilize” eggs from an in vitro fertilization clinic, which are much easier to get than donor human eggs. When they have optimized the experimental conditions, they will start using human eggs donated specifically for research.
UCSF’s new program is just one sign of California’s bid to become a haven for therapeutic cloning. The $3 billion in state funding for stem cell research that voters approved in 2004 has been held up in legal disputes; but in the interim, the oversight agency is issuing bonds to raise money for stem cell programs. Many universities that hope to receive some of that money say that nuclear transfer will be a major part of their research agendas.
Two teams of scientists at Harvard with an impressive dossier also plan to start nuclear-transfer experiments. George Daley at Children’s Hospital Boston wants to create patient-matched stem cells for bone marrow transplants for children with blood diseases, such as leukemia. Currently, many of these children cannot find donors whose bone marrow is a close enough match to be suitable for transplant. And sometimes even matched bone marrow transplants can trigger a severe immune reaction. Eggan, an expert in mouse cloning, and Doug Melton, a molecular and cellular biologist at Harvard, want to use cloning to create new models of neurodegenerative disease and diabetes. The Harvard scientists hope to get final approval for their respective projects this year.