Dr Lyle Armstrong (pictured), who is based at the North East England Stem Cell Institute* (NESCI ) at the International Centre for Life in Newcastle, today submitted an application for a three-year licence from the Human Fertilisation and Embryology Authority (HFEA) for the work.
Dr Armstrong and his team of five scientists intend to carry out laboratory tests which involve fusing animal eggs with human cells to try to understand more about how cells are genetically reprogrammed.
The knowledge will take embryonic stem cell work to the next stage, bringing the development of potential patient therapies even closer, although these could be several decades away.
If granted, the HFEA licence would allow the scientists to create hybrid embryos that would be approximately 0.1 per cent animal and 99.9 per cent human, using an established technique known as nuclear transfer, or therapeutic cloning.
Until now, work on the development of therapeutic cloning has used human eggs from consenting IVF patients but these are in short supply. Animal eggs are considered to be a viable alternative for tests to understand more about how cells behave.
At first the NESCI team would be working with cow eggs. The nuclear transfer technique would involve removing the nucleus of a cow egg - which contains most of its genetic information - and fusing the cow egg with the nucleus of a human cell such as a skin cell. The egg will then be encouraged to divide until it is a cluster of cells only a few days old called a blastocyst, or an early-stage cloned embryo.
The scientists would attempt to extract stem cells from the blastocyst after six days. Stem cells are building blocks that can grow into any type of tissue such as liver, heart and muscle cells.
The quality and the viability of stem cells would then be checked to see if nuclear transfer technique has worked. The scientists would also be observing the way that the cells are reprogrammed after fusion to see if there are useful processes they could replicate in the laboratory.
The embryo would have to be destroyed at 14 days old in accordance with the licence.
The eventual aim is to develop a way of creating stem cells to grow new tissue that is genetically matched to individual patients. For example, scientists hope to take a cell from a patient and re-programme it so that stem cells can be extracted to grow new tissue for damaged body parts without fear of immune rejection.
There is no possibility of allowing any of the animal hybrid cells to be used to treat patients but this approach will protect precious resources of human eggs at this early development stage and complement existing NESCI research using human eggs.
The studies will be heavily regulated under the conditions of the HFEA licence. The HFEA would undertake six-monthly audits in the lab to check scientists are complying with its rules, and it would require an annual report on progress. This work presents no new ethical problems and is similar to the long established use of animal eggs to test sperm viability.
Dr Armstrong, also a lecturer with Newcastle University, was a member of the team that created the world’s first cloned human embryo in early 2005.
Dr Armstrong said: “We are very hopeful that the HFEA will grant us permission for this work, which will help us to understand more about how cells behave after the nuclear transfer process. We need this information to enable us to take this area of stem cell research to the next stage.
“At the moment we don’t know if the nuclear transfer process works well enough in humans to create useful embryonic stem cells. We need to carry out many tests to establish this and, as animal eggs are freely available, it makes sense to use these as a source of material for our laboratory work.
Dr Armstrong added: “Stem cell research promises huge potential medical advantages and we believe we will be working towards our ultimate goal of developing new patient therapies.”
Teams at Edinburgh University and Kings College London have announced plans to seek permission from the HFEA for similar work. A decision on the NESCI application is expected within the next few months and, once granted, scientists could start work straightaway.
* The North East England Stem Cell Institute (NESCI) draws together Durham and Newcastle Universities, the Newcastle-upon-Tyne Hospitals NHS Foundation Trust and other partners in a unique interdisciplinary collaboration to convert stem cell research and technologies into cost-effective, ethically-robust 21st century health solutions to ameliorate degenerative diseases, the effects of ageing and serious injury. The Institute has received substantial funding and other support from the Regional Development Agency, One NorthEast, and is partly based at the International Centre for Life in Newcastle.’
Issued on behalf of NESCI by Newcastle University Media and Communications Office.
published on: 6th November 2006