Editorial: Beyond the primate barrier

Published in The Hindu on December 26, 2007

By successfully cloning monkey embryos and producing two lines of embryonic stem cells, scientists at the Portland-based Oregon National Primate Research Center have broken the primate barrier.  Despite the success with cloning the sheep Dolly more than ten years ago and many other mammals including mice subsequently, cloning primate embryos had proved to be difficult.  But the latest achievement demonstrates the possibility of cloning primate embryos, humans included. By cloning monkey embryos, which are closely related to humans, Shoukhrat Mitalipov has greatly contributed in our understanding of the processes involved, and has brought stem cell research one step closer to therapeutic cloning of humans for studying and treating certain diseases. Though a breakthrough, the process of producing embryos using skin cells taken from a nine-year-old rhesus macaque male and fusing them with unfertilised monkey eggs has been highly inefficient.  Requiring 304 eggs taken from 14 monkeys to produce two cell lines, the efficiency has been less than one per cent.  What is indeed encouraging is that Dr. Mitalipov has been able to significantly increase the number of embryos produced by adopting a small but crucial change in the cloning process.  This shows that embryonic stem cell science, which is still in its infancy, can reach a level of maturity where cloning human embryos for studying diseases and for therapeutic purposes may become possible, provided scientists are allowed to work in a conducive environment unfettered by laws reflecting unwarranted apprehensions.

If the South Korean stem cell  researcher Hwang Woo Suk’s fraudulent research prompted Dr. Mitalipov to shift his focus from reproductive cloning to producing embryonic stem cell lines, the journal Nature, where the latest paper was published, exercised abundant caution and took the unusual step of getting an independent team to verify the claims.  Journals came in for severe criticism when the absence of a proper mechanism for detecting data fabrication came to light when two papers based on Hwang’s fraudulent research on human cloning were published in Science.  While Science considered providing “additional procedural safeguards” for detecting such cases, Nature in an editorial published early last year had indicated several measures it would take to detect faked work. It is encouraging that the journal, by taking the extraordinary step, has set the precedent to ensure that scientists like Hwang will find it extremely difficult to cheat the scientific community and deflect the course of research.  The need of the hour is for other journals to follow suit and for scientists to put in place self-regulation mechanisms lest the basic fabric of scientific enterprise is soiled.