The Niche

American monkey stem-cell work heading to UK humans

This week, Nature released a paper reporting the first embryonic stem cells made from an embryo cloned from an adult monkey. Next week, researchers in the UK hope to try the same thing with humans. The Oregon-based monkey team needed just over 300 monkey oocytes to make two monkey embryonic stem cell lines. The researchers at the University of Newcastle upon Tyne expect to have twice that number of freshly collected oocytes from women seeking fertility treatments.

They are absolutely not trying to clone a live human. Instead, they will remove the chromosomes from an egg, insert the nucleus of a cell from another person, and stimulate the egg to divide. If all goes as they hope, the egg will form a hollow-ball shaped embryo called a blastocyst, from which the cells to create embryonic stem cells will be collected. (The process will destroy the embryo.)

There are plenty of teams in the US working on the tecnhique. James Byrne, lead author on the recent Nature paper reporting nuclear transfer in monkeys, has joined Rnee Reijo Pera’s lab at Stanford. Kevin Eggan at Harvard has his own techniques to apply to human. But these groups have to work with frozen embryos or oocytes otherwise not deemed suitable for implantation.

Shoukhrat Mitalipov, who led the work in monkeys, is working with Mary Herbert’s team in the UK. He would like to attempt the procedures himself at the Oregon Health and Science University, but before that could happen, his institutional review board would need to formulate a policy that would allow researchers to collect eggs and he would need private funding to carry the work out. Regulatory policies in the UK allow researchers to pay for half of woman’s fertility treatment if she provides half of the collected eggs for research, and there is currently a waiting list of women hoping to provide eggs, says Herbert. In fact, the waiting list is growing because of the publicity received.

In the US, such arrangements are often considered compensation. Instead, researchers can ask women to undergo the exhausting and somewhat risky procedure for altruistic reasons. In the UK, research on monkeys is highly regulated and so the research that worked out a successful procedure for cloning primate cells would have been hard to do, says Mitalipov.

What a strange world, where international collaborations depend (at least partly) on differences in local attitudes.

Standford University’s Chris Scott has some relevant posts on his stem cell blog.

His take on monkey stem cells is here.

His analysis of the UK versus US egg-sharing situation is here.

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