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Sunday, 25 November, 2001, 23:33 GMT
Dolly scientists play down US clone
Stem cell
Stem cells may help cure a wide range of diseases
Leading British cloning researchers say the US announcement of the first human embryo clone is a "preliminary observation" with little potential for immediate use.

Dr Ian Wilmut, who led the team that produced Dolly the sheep clone, at the Roslin Institute, Edinburgh, said the embryo created by Advanced Cell Technology (ACT) was not fully developed.

"It's really only a preliminary first step because the furthest that the embryo developed was to have six cells at a time when it should have had more than 200 - and it had clearly already died."

Dr Wilmut said it would have been better if ACT had waited until their work was more advanced before making the announcement.

"If they had reached the stage from which you could derive the stem cells that have such potential in medicine - that would have been of real interest."

He added: "It's almost impossible to know how far off they could be [from creating usable stem cells] but there's nothing in this report to suggest that the technique could be made to work immediately."

Dr Harry Griffin, the scientific director at Roslin, described the work, published in the electronic journal e-biomed: The Journal of Regenerative Medicine, as more of "a political and ethical milestone than it is a scientific milestone".

Right conditions

ACT scientists have stressed their aim is to create embryos that can be mined for stem cells, the "master cells" that have the potential to develop into virtually all the body's different cell types.

The hope is that these cells can be manipulated in the lab to become replacement cells for those that have failed in patients with degenerative diseases.

To get at the stem cells, scientists must wait until the embryos are several days old and have formed a general clump of about 100 to 150 cells - an object known as a blastocyst.

Griffin and Wilmut said once an embryo was created, it was almost set on auto-pilot in its early development.

"Even if you took the nucleus out of an unfertilised egg it would still develop to the six-cell stage under the right conditions without necessarily adding the nucleus of an adult cell," said Ian Wilmut.

"The fact that [the ACT embryo] did not develop beyond six cells suggests it is fairly lightweight research," he added.

And Griffin added: "The significant milestone in this area would be the creation of a blastocyst┐ The authors describe this as preliminary work, as early research, and I think that is very true."

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Dr Ian Wilmut, Roslin Institute
"It's really only a preliminary first step"
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