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At a meeting in Melbourne, Australia, in April 1998, West heard James Robl, co-founder of Advanced Cell Technology, a small company in Worcester, Mass., describe taking skin cells from 40-day cow fetuses, allowing the cells to near their 50-division limit in culture, then transferring the nuclei to eggs whose nuclei had been removed. Resulting embryos were transferred to cows, and at the 40-day fetal stage, skin cells again were removed, and the cycle repeated two more times. Each time, the chromosomes, supposedly at the end of their dividing days in culture, divided anew once in the environs of an egg.

“I thought, oh my God, they’ve reset the clock,” West says. West visited ACT, where vice president of research Jose Cibelli elaborated on the compelling cow experiments. “I forgot all about chickens!” West recalls.
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West’s visit coincided with a shift in the winds at ACT. Whereas in the early days of ACT the focus was on animal cloning and stem cells for agriculture, when West came aboard the work moved to the human side of biotechnology.

“Mike, [Jose] Cibelli, and myself shared a vision to develop human therapeutics,” says Robert Lanza, ACT’s vice president of medical and scientific development. “Now we are focusing on nuclear transfer, which has the potential to cure various diseases.”

The Controversy

Cloning cattle with valuable traits provides revenue for ACT, and a portrait of the first cloned cattle, George and Charlie, graces the front office. In their “spare time,” the researchers clone endangered species. “We take an endangered cat, bovid, pig, or goat, and clone it in a domestic animal that supplies an egg and a uterus,” says West. The company successfully cloned a wild ox called a gaur, born to a domestic cow, and is working with the Spanish government to clone a bucardo mountain goat. The last known bucardo died when a tree fell on it in January 2000. Because biologists had saved some of her tissue, the ACT team can now try to resurrect the species. They also are cloning a deer relative called an anoa and an Asian wild cow called a banteng.

But it is ACT’s work on human embryos that makes headlines. At the heart of the matter is semantics, the status of a human ES cell, and the definition of life.

“We’re not talking about human beings here. These aren’t people,” West says. “A dandruff cell is more human than an ES cell. These are completely blank, unformed cells. We should remove all the emotion and biases and simply look at reality — this research has the potential to do tremendous good. And the critics, when they understand this, do not disagree,” West says.

Indeed the U.S. Senate has come to an impasse on the subject, after hearing testimony from biologists as well as from celebrities such as Michael J. Fox, Mary Tyler Moore, and Christopher Reeve, who represent groups of patients who might benefit from regenerative medicine.

But pressure from politicians and others isn’t the only worry. Many biologists criticized ACT’s publishing a “Rapid Communication” in an online journal last November, announcing its production of a six-celled human embryo using somatic cell nuclear transfer. MIT biology professor Robert Weinberg, writing in The Atlantic Monthly, called the reported experiments “abject failures,” and admonished ACT for publishing the results online too hastily.

But West compares ACT’s work to that of the first in vitro fertilization, in 1980. “When sperm entered the egg, Bob Edwards published. When the fertilized egg divided, he published. He didn’t just sit around and wait for Louise Joy Brown to be born.” Since The Wall Street Journal had already reported that ACT was working with human eggs, West, Lanza, and Cibelli decided to be as upfront as possible.

“If it leaked that we had cloned a human embryo, it would be a disaster. We were just being honest. It was meant to be a snapshot of where we are today,” West says. Media coverage has since taken a caustic turn; for example, a July 1 profile of West in Business Week was headlined “Huckster or Hero?”

Shay says the controversy may have taken West by surprise. “He probably just wanted it to be on the agenda and didn’t figure the backlash that it would bring,” he says. “A number of totally insane scientists claim to be cloning human beings, and I can understand that Mike does not like to be grouped with these characters.”

But the notoriety also is strengthening West’s resolve. “In my sophomore year at RPI I decided I wanted my life to make a difference. I keep coming back to the fact that I know we can help people. And it’s still early — there’s lots of work to do.”




Rensselaer Magazine: September 2002
President's View Your Mail From the Archives Hawk Talk Class Notes Features
Front Page At Rensselaer Milestones
In Memoriam Making a Difference Staying Connected
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