We’re not quite on the path to an Orphan Black scenario just yet, but scientists just got one step closer — they have cloned adult human skin cells.
The process was a lot like the one used to create Dolly the sheep back in 1997, when they inserted into a female sheep an egg that had been implanted with cells that had two copies of the same DNA. This time, scientists took skin cells from adult humans, ages 35 and 75, and created an exact genetic match. The process was performed on infant cells last year, but it was important for scientists to be able to replicate that technique with adult cells, especially if they want to use this breakthrough to treat diseases that strike only or mostly adults, such as Alzheimer’s or heart disease.
The technique, which was described in the journal Cell Stem Cell, started with a healthy, unfertilized human egg into which scientists implanted DNA from the donors’ skin cells and removed the original DNA. After being cultured in a lab, the stem cells can do their magic — they can turn into pretty much any type of cell or tissue, all of which would match the donors’ DNA exactly. The key in this case was patience when it came to waiting for the cells to multiply. After 30 minutes, the cells weren’t doing much, but after a couple of hours, they were. Much like bioprinting organs made from one’s own DNA, this technique allows for patient-specific treatments. The somatic cell nuclear transfer technique used in this case was researched and performed in California, but was funded in part by the Ministry of Science of South Korea, a country whose scientists have worked on human embryo cloning for quite some time.
While the advancement is a huge step for medical treatment, it also reopens the debate on human cloning. Such techniques could theoretically be used to create babies with the same DNA as an existing human. Human cloning is illegal in many countries, and research cloning is banned in some countries and American states as well. Even though therapeutic cloning entails gathering stem cells from an embryo only a few days old, that practice has been banned in many places too, as it seems either difficult to distinguish from reproductive cloning and/or raises ethical questions itself, given the use of embryos.
One of the scientists behind the recent advancement is from a Massachusetts company called Advanced Cell Technology, which is the organization that started the 2001 stem cell firestorm when it became the first to clone embryos for research purposes. Their work prompted restrictions on embryonic stem cell research, which were retracted eight years later under the Obama administration. Even though the recent advances weren’t undertaken in the hopes of actually cloning people, it would seem that these debates may not be entirely behind us, especially because the process of turning cells into stem cells without using an egg has turned out to have its share of flaws.
This advancement calls to mind both Shakespeare and Huxley:
How many goodly creatures are there here!
How beauteous mankind is! O brave new world,
That has such people in’t!