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Hwang clones stem cells customized to patients
June 17, 2005
Seoul National University professor Hwang Woo-suk and his 20-plus colleagues achieved their second-round medical feat of cloning stem cells genetically matched to patients for the first time in history.
Hwang derived 11 embryonic stem cell lines by cloning somatic cells of 11 patients, both male and female of various ages ranging between 2 to 56, suffering from diseases or spinal cord injury.
It is a remarkable progress from last year's first-round success when his team established just a single stem cell line by cloning the somatic cell of a healthy woman.
The exploit will be featured in the next edition of the U.S.-based journal Science and the article is available from today on its Web site (www.sciencemag.org).
The stem cells are specifically tailored to match the nuclear DNA of patients as they were directly cloned from the patients' cells.
Hwang's team transformed the nuclear genetic materials from somatic cells of individuals with serious diseases or disabilities into a donated egg, of which the nucleus had already been removed.
The work is expected to move scientists one step closer to the goal of transplanting healthy cells into humans to replace cells damaged by diseases such as Parkinson's and diabetes without causing a rejection by the body's immune system.
The 51-year-old Hwang wrote in the Science article that he confirmed these cell lines displayed signs of immune compatibility with the patients' cells, in laboratory culture.
In addition, Hwang's team demonstrated that they can consistently extract a cell line in under 20 attempts by substantially enhancing the efficiency of their experiments.
They got 11 stem cell lines from 185 eggs donated by 18 women. Last year, they pulled out just a small batch from 242 attempts.
International embryologists and researchers in other fields hailed Hwang's achievement. Actually, no other team in the world has ever succeeded in growing embryonic stem cell lines.
"It is a breakthrough that I didn't think would happen for decades," said Gerald Schatten of the University of Pittsburgh to Science.
Some experts, including Rudolf Jaenisch of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, even predicted Hwang's success will affect the ongoing political and ethical debates on cloning research.
"Some people will hate it and others will love it. But it puts the discussion on very firm footing now. People will have to rethink the argument that it's not efficient," Jaenisch told Science.
Possible Backlash on Egg Procurement
Despite the international clamor for Hwang's successful research, some caution the highly regarded professor might suffer setbacks due to the allegedly dubious process of obtaining human eggs.
Hwang said one important factor in the success was the use of freshly harvested eggs from fertile women instead of using eggs left over from fertility treatment.
For the experiment, Hwang procured and used a total of 185 eggs from 18 women who had signed a written donation consent form.
Experts take issue with the consent form, which seems to fail to explain the risks of egg donation.
For example, a report written to Science by David Magnus and Mildred K. Cho from the Stanford University to overview the ethical problems of Hwang's research represents such a move.
They point out the eight-article consent form made by Hwang's team to acquire eggs did not explain that egg contribution may lead to the death of the donors.
"It is estimated that between 0.3 percent and 5 percent or up to 10 percent of women who undergo ovarian stimulation to procure eggs experience severe ovarian hyperstimulation syndrome" the report said.
It warned the syndrome can cause pain and occasionally leads to hospitalization, renal failure, potential future infertility and even death.
"Hwang and his colleagues' discussion of the consent process and consent forms pay little attention to the risks of the procedure and instead focus on the research aspects of their contribution," it said.
Korean ethicists, including University of Ulsan professor Koo Young-mo, agrees with them, saying Hwang might face litigation if the short consent form in question is all the written agreement involved in procurement.
"Let me raise a worst-case scenario. If some of the donors suffer from ovarian hyperstimulation syndrome and they bring Hwang to court with the dubious consent form, Hwang may be in trouble," Koo said.
He also said the consent form is also problematic since it does not say the donors will get a copy and fails to stipulate the donor can withdraw their donation before the experiments take place.