IRA FLATOW, host:
This is TALK OF THE NATION: SCIENCE FRIDAY. I'm Ira Flatow.
Scientists in Oregon announced they first, this week, they cloned monkey cells to produce embryos and then extracted stem cells from those embryos. This is the first time this type of cloning has been done in an animal other than a mouse, and the fact that it was done in a primate gives researchers hope that it can be done using human cells.
A few years back, a South Korean researcher claimed to have done just that - gotten stem cells from cloned human embryos - but as we know, that work turned out to be fraudulent. This time, it looks like the real thing. Joining me now to talk more about it is Joe Palca, science correspondent for NPR. And he's with us today from Washington.
JOE PALCA: You're welcome, Ira.
FLATOW: Tell us about this, you know, this research. Why is it so different and important?
PALCA: Well, I think you said it, it's a primate. And if you're going to say that this is someday going to be useful in humans, you first want to try and make sure that it works in one of our non - I mean, our non-human primate cousins. So the big thing is that there were some people who thought, well, this could never work. There's something special about mouse cells that allowed you to clone them and derive stem cells, and maybe you'd never be able to do this with primates. But now, it seems that's not the case.
FLATOW: Now, there were not little monkeys running around, right?
PALCA: No, no, no. That's an important distinction. Although, the truth is that these researchers are interested, ultimately, if having made cloned embryos, they are thinking about trying to implant those embryos in a surrogate mother that would - a surrogate, you know, mother, I guess - that would carry them to term. But that's not what this research about - is about. This research is -it's all about this notion, Ira, we - they call it reprogramming…
PALCA: …which is to convince a cell, an adult cell - in fact, these cells that these guys used were taken from an adult 9-year-old male monkey - convinced those cells that they really want to think like an embryonic cell. They want to go back in time to their earliest time when they were just able to turn into any other cell type in the body, any type of cell in the body.
And that's what these embryonic stem cell lines are. They're cells that can turn into any cell type in the body. But, you know, they began life or began their existence as a skin cell in an adult monkey. And somehow, by putting them into an egg, the clock gets turned back for them, and this nucleus gets reprogrammed. And instead of being programmed to be a skin cell, they're programmed back to the day when they could be any kind of cell.
FLATOW: And that's still - you say, somehow, that's still mysterious how that happens.
PALCA: Yeah. I mean, right now, the egg has this magical power to work this transition. And there are scientists around the world that are trying in like crazy to find other techniques for doing this reprogramming but…
PALCA: …this - the egg is the way it works right now.
FLATOW: Now, now, Nature, the journal Nature published this work, but took the unusual step of having the work double-checked first, right?
PALCA: Yeah. That - well, yeah, I've been trying to find an example of this happening before, and I haven't had success. It may have happened once before, I don't know. But, yeah, you said it, in describing this research, when the Korean scientists said they'd done it with human cells. It made headlines around the world, and this was a fantastic claim.
And of course, then it turned out that some of the photographs were from other papers and some of the data was misdescribed and not appropriate. And so I think the scientific journals all - you know, a cold shiver ran through them at that point to think, well, you know, we don't want to make that mistake again. And so…
PALCA: …that's why they're double-checking and triple-checking now.
FLATOW: Now, a lot of people are working on a method to clone the human stem cells. You think they're just going to forget about what they're doing and move over to this method that seems to be working?
PALCA: Well, it's a little hard to say. You know, the techniques vary from species to species…
PALCA: …and so I think what's going to happen is people will look at what the Oregon group did and say, well, let's see what we're doing, let's see how it matches with what they did, and how it doesn't match, and maybe we can tweak what we're doing. But, you know, the whole problem, even for monkeys - even though there's a greater supply of eggs, getting supply of fresh human eggs is not easy because, you know…
PALCA: …it's - the question is - right now, the research rules say women are not allowed to sell their eggs for research…
PALCA: …and so - it's not a terribly painful procedure, but it's not without pain and it's not without some risk, and so women are being asked to donate and it's hard. It's hard to get donors and it's hard to get a supply of eggs to even do these kinds of studies.
FLATOW: Because even this one still took hundreds of tries, didn't it?
PALCA: Yeah, yeah, I mean, it's clearly not an efficient procedure and, you know, you remember Dolly was - took a lot of times before they got that right. And even with mice, which are cloned quite routinely now, it's still is not a guarantee that if you have an egg and you have a - somatic cell, an adult cell, that you'll be able to use that egg to reprogram. Sometimes, yes. Sometimes, no.
FLATOW: Well, I remembered Dolly, but she didn't remember me. Thank you, Joe…
PALCA: Okay, Ira.
FLATOW: …for taking time to be with us.
PALCA: You bet.
FLATOW: Joe Palca, science correspondent for NPR News.
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