The research will be conducted at the new Institute for Cancer/Stem Cell Biology and Medicine, which Stanford is founding with $12 million from an anonymous donor.
The Institute will also work to develop a new series of embryonic stem cell lines to serve as models for diseases such as cancer, diabetes, heart disease and Parkinson’s disease.
Embryonic stem cells are created in the first days of pregnancy and develop into all the cells in the human body.
“We want to translate the advances in embryonic stem cell research to create lines that represent genetically determined diseases and make these lines available to investigators who want to understand and treat these diseases,” Irving Weissman, the Institute’s director, said in a statement.
This method of creating stem cells is known as nuclear transfer or therapeutic cloning. It begins in the same way as reproductive cloning, according to Malcolm Moore of the Sloan-Kettering Institute, a scientific advisor to Advanced Cell Technology, a company that is involved in the research and development of nuclear transfer technology.
Both processes start by removing the nucleus from an unfertilized human egg cell and implanting the nucleus of a cell from another person. Once that cell starts dividing, it forms a blastocyst, or ball of cells. Scientists working on nuclear transfer, such as those at Stanford, take that ball of cells and remove an inner mass of cells that then becomes embryonic stem cells. To attempt reproductive cloning, researchers would implant the ball of cells into a woman’s uterus, Moore explained.
Stanford will be using nuclear transfer to create stem cells and once the inner mass of cells is removed for that purpose the “cells can go on to form many types of tissue, but cannot on their own develop into a human,” Dr. Weissman said in a statement.
Ronald Green, the chairman of Advanced Cell’s ethics advisory committee and a religion professor at Dartmouth College, applauded Stanford’s announcement but said “cloning” is in fact the mostly widely accepted term for what Weissman’s team plans to do.
While “cloning” suggests the production of a baby, and Stanford researchers say that’s not their intent. “You are creating something that some view as an embryo,” Green told the Associated Press, adding: “Almost any terminology is inadequate to explain the complex science.”
Nobel laureate and Stanford professor Paul Berg, when asked at the news conference if nuclear transfer and cloning were the same, had a two-word response: “It is.”
He added, “We use the word cloning in science as a term to describe the production of many copies of a starting material.”
Since embryos must be destroyed to conduct stem cell research, the study of stem cells remains controversial. President Bush limited federal funding to stem cell lines created before Aug. 9, 2001. Of those 78 stem cell colonies worldwide that the Bush administration has said are eligible for federally funded research, only about a dozen are in good enough shape to use in experiments.
Even fewer lines — perhaps four, scientists say — are routinely shared with researchers interested in breaking into the field.