In an article published in Nature on 6 October 2011, Scott Noggle and his colleagues at the New York Stem Cell Foundation Laboratory report on their experiments in which they have derived stem cells from human embryos created by adding the nucleus of a somatic cell to a human egg.
The fact that the stem cells were useless made no difference to the amount of publicity this latest human cloning experiment received, but the reports did draw attention again to the supply of human eggs for the research and the ethics of paying women to undergo risky superovulation.
The process used was a form of cloning. However, in standard cloning – the technique used to produce Dolly the sheep – the nucleus is removed from an egg and replaced with the nucleus from a somatic cell. In the New York experiments it was first found that this process routinely fails with human eggs, with development of the human embryo created by cloning arresting before reaching the stage at which stem cells can be extracted.
The experimenters tried leaving the nucleus of the egg in place and merely adding the nucleus from the somatic cell. It appears that this left in place some factor in the egg that is crucial to the continued development of the human embryo.
However, as a result of leaving the nucleus of the egg in place while adding the nucleus of a somatic cell was that each cell of the resulting human embryo, including the extracted stem cells, is triploid – having 69 chromosomes rather than the normal human complement of 46 chromosomes.
This means that this experiment has not achieved the goal of obtaining patient-matched stem cells by cloning or “oocyte reprogramming” as some prefer to call it these days.
The triploid cells obviously don’t match the patient’s DNA and could not be safely used in therapies. Nor are they likely to be of any use for drug testing.
Nonetheless, with cloning research otherwise stalled around the world this experiment is likely to refuel the search for a way to make cloning for human embryonic stem cells work.
The New York experimenters do have a significant advantage over other cloning researchers. The Empire State Stem Cell Board in March 2010 approved contract policy conditions that allowed researchers to pay “women donating oocytes solely for research purposes … out-of-pocket expenses, including payments for travel, housing, medical care, child care and similar expenses incurred as a result of the donation of the oocytes for research purposes and compensated for the time, inconvenience and burden associated with the donation.”
This policy enabled the New York Stem Cell Foundation Laboratory to pay 16 women to procure (the word donate seems inappropriate when payment is being made) a total of 270 fresh eggs. This is an average of nearly 17 eggs from each woman.
New York is the only jurisdiction in the world to allow payment for egg procurement for research from women who are not undergoing egg retrieval for reproductive purposes.
Superovulation, which women undergo to produce eggs in this quantity is dangerous carrying a mortality risk of between 2.52 (UK 2003-05) and 6 (Netherlands 1984-2008) per 100,000. Professor Emerita of Sociology, Dianne Beeson, has given evidence to a US Congressional hearing on the dangers that egg extraction for cloning poses to women’s health and life. Up to 14 percent of patients undergoing superovulation experience some form of ovarian hyperstimulation syndrome, or OHSS. Common symptoms of mild OHSS include abdominal discomfort, ovarian enlargement, nausea and vomiting. Those who develop severe OHSS may experience a wide range of serious conditions including loss of future fertility, kidney or multiple organ failure, and death. The frequency of severe OHSS is estimated to be as high as 10 per cent of women who undergo the procedure.
The recent Heerey review of Australia’s cloning legislation recommended in June 2011 that there be no change to the current system in Australia where women can be reimbursed for reasonable expenses in relation to egg donation but that this does not include compensation for time or loss of income. The recommendation was particularly welcome as review committee member Professor Loane Skene had been a public advocate for Australia following New York’s approach to compensation for women for undergoing the procedure of egg retrieval. Perhaps it was just as well that this review had reported before the New York experiments were reported and the results could be hyped to justify the benefits of paying women for their eggs.
Sydney IVF which holds the only three licenses for cloning issued by the NHMRC Licensing Committee relies on obtaining eggs from women undergoing IVF. As of 28 February 2011 they had used 435 “clinically unsuitable eggs” in cloning experiments but failed to obtain development beyond the compact morula stage.
The licenses were set to expire on 16 September 2011 but on 24 August 2011 the NHMRC Licensing Committee extended the licenses until 16 September 2012. This is a disappointing decision in the light of the failure of the experiments to date and the obvious unsuitability of “clinically unsuitable eggs” as research material as already established by researchers at Newcastle in Britain and elsewhere.
The Heerey review in its majority recommendation that the law continue to allow licenses for cloning for research to be issued noted that:
However, in reaching this recommendation, the Review Committee notes the lack of progress in SCNT [somatic cell nuclear transfer – the main cloning technique] research in animals and humans.
The Review Committee believes that this must impact on the Licensing Committee’s interpretation of its statutory obligation, when it is considering any future application for a licence to undertake research involving SCNT, to take into account ‘the likelihood of significant advance in knowledge or improvement in technologies for treatment as a result of the use of excess ART embryos or human eggs, or the creation or use of other embryos, proposed in the application, which could not reasonably be achieved by other means’ when it is considering any future application for a licence to undertake research involving SCNT
It is difficult to see how the NHMRC Licensing Committee could justify extending the Sydney IVF cloning licenses in the light of this recommendation.
However, it should be clear by now that different rules apply to cloning. Meaningless experiments are hyped as dramatic advances and snake oil salesmen are given a welcome mat and millions of dollars of funding.
Richard Egan is the research officer for the Coalition for the Defence of Human Life. He is a qualified librarian who has been involved in prolife advocacy for over 25 years.