Stem-Cell Advance

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South Korean scientists claim a major advance in producing stem cells for medical research. What are the implications for science and for the political debate over government funding for stem-cell research in the United States?

IRA FLATOW, host:

This is TALK OF THE NATION/SCIENCE FRIDAY. I'm Ira Flatow.

Groups of scientists in both South Korea and Great Britain say they have cloned human embryos. The UK researchers at the University of Newcastle claim they have created that country's first cloned embryo; though their work has not yet been published. It is not open to scrutiny. But South Korean's is. They are reporting in the journal Science, and they say that they have come up with an extremely efficient way to take the cells of a person, combine them with a donor egg to develop a line of cells that are an exact genetic match to the patient.

Joining me now to talk more about what the scientists have done and how that research might be used is NPR science correspondent Richard Harris. Thanks for being with us today, Richard.

RICHARD HARRIS (NPR Science Correspondent): My pleasure, Ira. Good to be with you.

FLATOW: Thank you. These South Korean scientists showed about--a little over a year ago that they could clone a human embryo and harvest embryonic stem cells from it. What's different about this research today?

HARRIS: What's different is how readily they can do it. The last time they undertook this experiment, they had to get eggs from well over 200 women in order to get one successful outcome, and what they do is they start with eggs from the women. They remove the women's DNA from the egg, and then they take DNA from an individual they want to create a stem cell line for, and they put that DNA into the egg--that egg. If it does divide, then those divided cells are all genetically identical to the person who provided the DNA, and if you can start to grow those up into lines of stem cells, then you can turn those cells--they're sort of blank slates, if you will, and you can turn them into nerve cells or pancreatic cells or any kind of cell you want. At least that's the long-term goal of this research.

So the latest development is that the Koreans used this and figured out a much, much more efficient way of doing this. So they had 11 volunteers, and on average, it took only 18 or--16 to 18 eggs in order to create a cell line from each of these people. So all of a sudden...

FLATOW: Right.

HARRIS: ...instead of having to have hundreds and hundreds of eggs from dozens of women, presumably, to get one success, you can actually use the eggs from a single woman and maybe even from a single egg donation procedure and create a cell line. So this is--really enables a lot more with this work.

FLATOW: Right. And so this--you know, we hear many times the word `breakthrough' thrown around a lot, and we try not do to that. But this does seem like a real breakthrough here in allowing...

HARRIS: It's clearly...

FLATOW: Yeah.

HARRIS: It's clearly a big advance, yeah. I mean, since they've done it before, it's not the first of its kind, but just sort of it's--you know...

FLATOW: Yeah.

HARRIS: ...all of a sudden, it's gone from an experiment to really an important step closer to being a real technology.

FLATOW: How might this influence the ethical debate over human embryonic stem cells? We just heard on the news your report and the president saying that he might veto a bill that's in Congress next week in the House to loosen up embryonic stem cell research.

HARRIS: Indeed. Well, there are certainly ethical issues involved in this. For one thing, the women who donate their eggs have some risk. It's not a huge risk, but it's a surgical procedure to provide these eggs, and they get no medical benefit from it. So that's one very concrete ethical issue. There are philosophical issues as well, which a lot of people say these are embryos. It's kind of hard to say whether these are or are not really embryos...

FLATOW: Right.

HARRIS: ...because if you implanted them in a womb, they wouldn't probably grow up into a person, almost certainly not into a healthy human being, so whether or not these are embryos is a really interesting semantic question as much as anything else.

FLATOW: Right.

HARRIS: But there are certainly a lot of people who say, `This is messing around with human embryos, and we disapprove,' as the president said in his comments. Some people regard this as taking a life to save a life. Although that's an embryonic life. So, I mean, it gets down to some of the most basic debates we really have in American politics and in American society. So...

FLATOW: But...

HARRIS: ...but on the other hand...

FLATOW: Yeah.

HARRIS: ...there are lot of organizations, including religious organizations, scientific organizations and government research bodies, who say, you know, this is a trade-up that's worth it because there really are potentially very major medical advances from doing this down the road.

FLATOW: And let's talk about it. The goal here and the express goal by all parties is not to create real babies, not to have these embryos go to term, but it's to go--the goal is therapeutic use of stem cells. What kinds of therapies are they talking about?

HARRIS: Well, I think we are, at this point, only limited by imagination, because no one has actually succeeded, particularly in any place. But, for example, a lot of the people who provided the DNA in the Korean experiment are people with spinal cord injuries. They can't walk. They have basically damaged nerve cells. And the idea is, or the hope is maybe if you could start with their starting product cells, they would be genetically almost identical to these people, and you could coax them into becoming nerve cells. Maybe you could find a way to transplant those nerve cells and bridge the gap where they have...

FLATOW: Yeah.

HARRIS: ...broken nerve connections and maybe restore some more movement to these people. I mean, that's really speculative, but, I mean, that's why...

FLATOW: Yeah.

HARRIS: ...there's so much interest in it, because the potential would be so great. Other things include diabetes, for example. If you have diabetic people who have cells in their body that have gone awry, you can sort of give them cells that do what they're supposed to do in terms of producing insulin, or possibly even treatment for genetic diseases like cystic fibrosis or sickle cell anemia. The possibility would be to take somebody's blood cells out if they have this genetic disorder, sort of engineer them and fix the broken gene because they know what gene has gone wrong there, and then put those cells back into that individual, and then all of a sudden, they don't have their genetic disease anymore. I mean, again, I have to stress that this is all speculative...

FLATOW: Yeah, yeah.

HARRIS: ...because nothing has been done, but it is...

FLATOW: Well...

HARRIS: But, you know, the possibilities are so intriguing...

FLATOW: Yeah.

HARRIS: ...I think it really gets people going.

FLATOW: And what is not speculative is that this is being done in laboratories that are very small. The South Korean laboratory had a budget--I think it was under half a million dollars or a quarter of a million dollars to do this. It's being done outside of the United States. It's being done without the federally funded money that you're talking about, and if it's not done in this country, it's going to be done in Cali--you know, on a federal level, be done in California or New York or New Jersey, Massachusetts--someplace else. It's going to happen.

HARRIS: It does seem that way, absolutely. If you're a federally funded researcher in the US, you cannot use federal funds to do this kind of research, but you can use privately donated money, and you can, as you say, if you're in the state of California, that has a $3 billion fund for doing this kind of research, there are other sources of funding, but clearly, this is deeply tied up in the federal debate over the, you know, right to life movement and so on, and so it is really--it is proving to be very difficult to make progress on this on Capitol Hill. The irony is, as you mentioned earlier, nobody wants to clone a baby. Almost everybody thinks that's unethical and not to mention probably--the likelihoods are very high that you would end up with a child with serious defects...

FLATOW: Yeah.

HARRIS: ...because most of these cloned animals end up that way. But it's not even illegal to do that in the United States, because that law hasn't gotten through Congress, because whenever somebody tries to push it through, it gets attached with all other sorts of restrictions that people want to add to that. So that, I think, actually did help the Korean research go forward, because it's clearly illegal in Korea to clone a baby, so you can say, `But you can do this research, but you can't do that part.' Here, no one has drawn that bright line, and that's part of the problem.

FLATOW: Very interesting. Thank you, Richard Harris, for taking the time to talk with us.

HARRIS: My pleasure.

FLATOW: You're welcome. NPR science correspondent Richard Harris.

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