La Jolla company is first to clone human life

A La Jolla biotech firm is trailblazing scientific development in the controversial stem cell industry with the successful cloning of human embryos.

Stemagen, at 4150 Regents Park Row, Suite 280, in La Jolla recently became the first company to fuse donated egg cells with the DNA from skin cells of an adult man. On Jan. 17, 2008, Stemagen announced the creation of the world’s first human blastocyst cloned from an adult human cell. The breakthrough was published in the peer-reviewed scientific journal “Stem Cells.”

Dr. Andrew French, chief science officer for the company, which is dedicated to hastening the day stem cells are used routinely to treat devastating diseases, is one of the world’s most accomplished experts in mammalian cloning with almost 20 years’ experience in both academia and private industry.

French’s accomplishments in reproductive biotechnology have included the production and characterization of laboratory and domestic transgenic animals, genetic engineering for improved growth rates and xenotransplantation. His work has appeared in more than 40 publications in scientific journals and books. He holds several patents.

French joined Stemagen in 2005 to manage the development of proprietary methods for the isolation of human embryonic stem cell lines and their use for cell-based therapeutics. He noted the successful cloning of human embryos is an important first step in perfecting the process for using stem cells to combat human disease. “Embryonic stem cells are the gold standard because they’re the very earliest of stem cells,” he said. “The idea is to make them customized to a patient. We’ve shown, with a relatively small number of eggs, that it is possible to do the first step of getting patient-matched embryonic stem cell lines. “

Stem cells are extraordinary cells distinguished from other cell types by their ability to divide and self-renew for long periods of time, and by their capacity to develop into many different cells of the body. Because embryonic stem cells develop into all the cells in the body, it is possible that, with additional research, they can be used as a source of replacement cells for treating many degenerative diseases such as Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s, traumatic spinal cord injury, diabetes, heart disease, rheumatoid arthritis and hearing and vision loss.

Destroying human embryos in the process of doing stem cell research has been a divisive national issue, with opponents of the procedure arguing it is an ethical transgression. In November 2007, two teams of scientists reported they had found a way to “reprogram” human skin cells, turning them into embryonic stem cells without having to make or destroy an embryo.

French, however, said that while this “reprogramming” technique shows promise for scientific advancement, it is procedurally flawed. “That process, induced Pluripotent Stem (iPS), uses a viral vector which randomly inserts pieces of DNA into a cell,” French said. “With that process, in mouse models, we’ve seen cancers and other problems. So, at this stage, it’s not ready for (human) therapeutic application, whereas the process we use, nuclear transfer for stem cells, has been shown to work in a range of models. Their’s is a very exciting study.

We hope that work continues in parallel to ours.”

Stemagen has now attained the first stage of being able to derive a patient’s specific stem cells. To do that, French said, it was necessary to get an embryo to a stage in which its stem cells could be extracted. Said French: “We’ve shown that we can take skin cells from a donor and transport that into an (human) egg with all its genes for embryonic development. Once you have specific stem cells matched to that individual, you have the capacity to derive disease-specific stem cells.”

French said scientists will now be able to take someone affected by a debilitating disease, such as Parkinson’s, and make a stem cell using the cloning process Stemagen is pioneering. “We can use those stem cells for research to look at ways to find new drugs, or new treatment options, without actually having to test the patient,” he said. “A lot of drugs now require extensive testing. We can do that now up-front using a stem cell line.”

Once scientists are able to derive disease-specific stem cells, said French, they can then mass produce them for harvesting to be used in research. “When you have a stem cell line, you can take it down a pathway, make things like liver or muscle or heart cells which can then be introduced into someone who has a disease,” he said. “Those cells will take over the function of diseased cells.”

French said scientific trials are ongoing to use embryonic stem cells to treat medical conditions, such as diabetes, by making insulin. “There are a lot of companies doing ongoing trials with stem cells in humans to repair such things such as diabetes or muscle degeneration,” he said. “They’re using people at the moment to work out the benefits of this technology. If those trials are successful, we’ll have stem-cell applications in the very near future.”

Noting the controversial nature of stem cells, French said ethical issues surrounding the practice of cloning could and should be explored. “I have worked in the field of animal research and I think discussion of ethical and moral issues is very important,” he said, adding his stem cell research into cloning human embryos was set up, reviewed and approved by an independent committee.

French said the human eggs used in his stem-cell trials were donated by women involved in fertility enhancement. “We took beauty of La Jolla. Are you going to be putting this building a story high? What are you going to do to address that need?”

“The architects are designing it (new building) such that it is sloped up the terrain so that the view corridors from the roadway and the pedestrian walkways are not obstructed, particularly to ocean views,” replied fisheries spokesman John Chamberlain.

“How can you do that without putting this thing underground?” questioned Merryweather, adding, “The university always comes here and says, ‘We’re going to show you what we’ve got.’ But they never really want our opinion. They’re just telling us what they’re doing.”

“Will there be off-street parking on-campus so employees are not parking in the neighborhoods,” asked La Jolla Town Councilman Ed Ward.

Ward was told there would be at least 150 off-street parking spaces, with the potential for 50 spaces more, provided by the new fisheries’ headquarters. He was told some of the employees may also continue to park on-campus at Scripps Institution of Oceanography as they do now.

Ward cautioned that parking is a touchy issue everywhere in La Jolla. “I’m sure you’re aware of the off-street and paid-parking issues,” he said. “If you don’t accommodate off-street parking on that campus with this new facility, you may well see La Jollans protesting on your campus.”

“I appreciate there’s going to be an improvement in parking, at least for NOAA,” said CPA trustee Rob Whittemore. “But I think NOAA should provide 100 percent of their parking for employees. We’ve got one chance here to get it right for the next 50, 75 years. I think everyone in this room would agree that the fisheries people should provide off-street parking for all their employees, however many there are.”