The First Clone
Scientists have finally cloned a human embryo. The breakthrough promises cures for terrible diseases. Here's the inside story:
The story of ACT's breakthrough is largely the story of three men, from very different backgrounds, who came together to stake their scientific careers on this controversial enterprise. Here's how, against the odds, they pushed the world into the age of cloning:
Jose Cibelli's ambitions started out simply enough. Raised on the Pampas of Argentina, the talented young researcher just wanted "to do something for the farmers." So after obtaining his degree in veterinary medicine, he married his high school sweetheart and headed to the University of Massachusetts-Amherst to get his Ph.D. There he quickly became a star student in the lab of James Robl, who was doing work on so-called transgenic animals--cattle, for example, with improved genetic properties that yield higher-quality meat or milk.
By the summer of 1996, Cibelli was on the fast track to becoming a major player in agricultural genetics. But a Massachusetts Institute of Technology conference on cell therapies changed his life. Researchers there were presenting disappointing results in an experimental technique to cure Parkinson's disease in humans. Young, healthy fetal cells were injected into the damaged parts of patients' brains. But little long-term improvement had been seen. In the car on his way home that evening, Cibelli could not shake a nagging thought: Of course the cells didn't work so well. They weren't the patients' own cells.
Working under Robl, Cibelli had already joined Advanced Cell Technology to focus on cloning prime specimens of cattle. If you could reproduce a cow's cells, Cibelli reasoned, you could use the same method to endlessly multiply a given patient's cells to replace any of those in the body that were worn out or diseased. In an instant, Cibelli saw "the future of medicine." Therapeutic cloning--for humans--became his calling.
There were obstacles, though. One was the scarcity of human eggs from women willing to donate them for experiments. But, Cibelli surmised, if you removed the DNA from a more readily available egg--say, from a cow's--it might be possible that the proteins and enzymes left would be the same ones that rejuvenate and multiply cells in humans. To find out, he scraped cells from the inside of his cheek. He grew the cells in a culture, then inserted their DNA into a cow egg that had been rid of its bovine genetic code. Most researchers were skeptical. Cibelli had his own doubts, too. "But so often, people give up and declare something impossible after 800 tries," he says. "When on the 900th try they would have figured out how to make it work."
Cibelli kept at it. After implanting cow eggs with his own DNA over and over again, he and Robl were about to toss yet another petri dish full of failed cloning attempts when they spied a rudimentary embryo. It was a round ball containing a cluster of stem cells, the primordial body cells that are capable of becoming skin, liver, nerves--and every other cell in the body. The news spread fast in the biomedical community. Cibelli couldn't reproduce the results, and he abandoned the use of cow eggs as a dead end. But the feat captured the attention of the man who would play a key role in making Cibelli's dream a reality.