The First Clone
Scientists have finally cloned a human embryo. The breakthrough promises cures for terrible diseases. Here's the inside story:
Physically, Judson Somerville didn't feel a thing. When he took the cigar-cutter-like tool and clipped a chunk of skin cells from his right calf last April, there was no pain. The 40-year-old Texas physician has been using a wheelchair for years, paralyzed from the chest down, the result of a terrible cycling accident. But emotionally, that was another story. Cutting the skin from his calf, Somerville says, he felt the thrill of being a sort of astronaut, a pioneer. By donating his skin cells, Somerville was volunteering for nothing less than service on the frontier of human cloning.
Somerville did not make the decision lightly. As a conservative Republican, a longtime contributor to President Bush, Somerville knows how controversial cloning is for many of his political compatriots. But he is also a devout Episcopalian. After consulting with his church leaders, Somerville concluded that being one of the first humans to be cloned--not to produce a baby, which he would never do, but to create healthy new cells for ailing patients--would be one of the best things he could do for his fellow man. His decision wasn't completely selfless, however. Neurons derived from his own cloned embryo could end Somerville's paralysis. "My 14-year-old daughter doesn't want me getting her wedding gown caught up in my wheelchair," he says, laughing. "So when the day comes, she's counting on me walking her down the aisle."
Now, Somerville may be a step closer to that walk, and humanity is moving into uncharted medical and ethical territory. Since the 1997 announcement of the cloned sheep Dolly, scientists around the world have been trying to duplicate and advance the work in a variety of species from mice to monkeys. Some have succeeded, but many more have been thwarted in their efforts. A few researchers had even set out to clone humans, without success. But this week, scientists at Advanced Cell Technology, a small biotech start-up company in Worcester, Mass., are announcing that they have done just that--successfully engineered the world's first cloned human embryo.
ACT is the only laboratory on U.S. soil that has acknowledged working on human therapeutic cloning. But other than being called to testify before Congress on these issues, the company's leadership and its scientists have not publicly elaborated on their human-cloning efforts--until now. Over the past 18 months, U.S. News has reported from inside the ACT laboratory, with exclusive access to the cloning scientists and their laboratory work. In a highly technical paper in the Journal of Regenerative Medicine, the scientists now describe their laboratory success--the transfer of human DNA into human eggs and the growth of those eggs into six-cell embryos. What that scientific paper doesn't describe, and what U.S. News documents here, is what went on in the hearts and minds of the people behind this achievement and the many setbacks and adjustments that preceded the final success.
The accomplishment presents huge challenges to every premise of scientific, religious, and legal thought. Given the intensity of last summer's national debate over human embryonic stem cell research, ACT's work is sure to become a lightning rod for conservative critics when the issue is taken up again in the months ahead. It will be condemned as an ethical abomination akin to playing God and described as the creation of embryos for spare parts. It will also be hailed as the hugest medical breakthrough of the past half century--an accomplishment that could cure many diseases of aging and provides hope for people like Somerville.