By Maggie Fox, Health and Science EditorThu Jan 17, 1:46 PM ET
A small California company set up by an unnamed investor and a top fertility doctor burst into the stem cell field on Thursday with a report that it is the first lab to clone human embryos and prove it.
Stemagen Corp. of La Jolla, California, said its scientists used cloning technology to make five early-stage embryos, called blastocysts, from donated human eggs and skin cells from two men.
While they did not make stem cells from their embryos -- they were destroyed in the process of proving they were clones -- company founder Dr. Samuel Wood says stem cells are his business plan.
"We believe that this is the future -- to create patient-specific stem cells," Wood said in a telephone interview.
Stem cells are found throughout the body, renewing tissue and blood cells. Cells taken from very early human embryos -- smaller than the head of a pin -- can give rise to all the cells and tissues found in the human body.
Scientists hope to harness their power to transform medicine, to repair devastating injuries, replace the brain cells lost in Parkinson's disease, or to cure juvenile diabetes.
The best would be tailor-made, using a patient's own DNA.
But an influential minority of people and groups oppose their use in the United States because they believe it is wrong to destroy any human embryo.
They include President George W. Bush, who has vetoed legislation from Congress that would expand federal funding of human embryonic stem cell research. That limits the work to a few academic labs that can juggle the complex requirements of the federal limits, and private companies.
Wood came up with the idea as part of his work at a large fertility clinic.
"We had this great excess of embryos in the tank that eventually were donated to research or to other couples. But what I also noticed was that we had a great excess of eggs," Wood said.
Human eggs are needed to use cloning techniques to make embryos, and that got Wood thinking. His mother had type-2 diabetes and died after a bad fall. He knew of an investor whose mother had died from a degenerative disease.
Wood said he made his pitch in 2005 to the investor, who wants to remain anonymous, "over a martini in a local restaurant." He then recruited Andrew French, who had created animal clones while at Monash University in Australia.
Wood says the technique is only efficient if the egg is used within two hours of being taken from the woman.
Opponents of cloning technology say it is a slippery slope to using cloning to make live babies. Wood is mindful his work at a fertility clinic could raise suspicions. But he noted that cloned animals are often abnormal.
"To put any human through that just strikes me as inherently unethical," he said.
While some cloning experts support the new company's work, others are skeptical, including Dr. Douglas Melton, who helped found Harvard University's stem cell research center.
"The value, if any, will come from using the cells to discover drugs, i.e. using the cells as research tools," Melton said by e-mail.
French said his team is working to make embryonic stem cells from embryos donated at the clinic, to perfect the technique before trying to use cloning methods again to make tailored cells.
"This field has faced a lot of controversy so we wanted to be clean," French said.
Other companies in the field include Massachusetts-based Advanced Cell Technology, California-based International Stem Cell Corporation and Geron Corp..