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Monday, 3 December, 2001, 15:57 GMT
Embryo clone leads to fall-out
Parthenogenetically activated embryos, e-biomed
ACT wants to take stem cells from parthenogenetically activated embryos
One of the editorial advisors to the online science journal that published details of the "world's first human embryo clones" says he is resigning from his position.

John Gearhart, one of the scientists to pioneer research into human embryonic stems cells, said his decision to step down was prompted by concerns over openness and integrity.

I feel very embarrassed and very chagrined by this publication

Prof John Gearhart
The Johns Hopkins University researcher claimed important data were missing from the online paper featured in e-biomed: The Journal Of Regenerative Medicine, and that the experiment was in his judgement a failure and should not have been published.

The company behind the clone research, Advanced Cell Technology, defended its work again at a conference over the weekend, and even released new information on work it had done on monkey embryo.

Michael West, chief executive officer of ACT, said the company's researchers had made monkey eggs start dividing like embryos even though they had not been fertilised by sperm or activated by the transfer of genetic material from another cell.

This process, known as parthenogenesis, was one of the techniques ACT said it used to make its human clones detailed in e-biomed.

'Very embarrassed'

John Gearhart led one of the two teams which in 1998 announced that human embryonic stem cells had been isolated and cultured in the lab for the first time.

Recently, Professor Gearhart has been advising the US Senate on stem cell legislation.

Rep Dave Weldon, R-Fla, AP
Some House members want their Senate colleagues to back a ban on human cloning
He said he tried to find out which experts had reviewed the ACT paper published on 25 November, but claimed the editor would not tell him.

"I feel very embarrassed and very chagrined by this publication," he told the BBC. "I thought that by staying on the editorial board I could at least find out what happened; but clearly that's not the case, so probably the best thing to do is to remove myself."

He said the openness of peer review was especially important in this case, as the journal's editorial advisory board also contained scientists from Advanced Cell Technology.

Like many other observers, Professor Gearhart said he had concerns over the way the research was presented to the public.

He said ACT had produced "very preliminary and unconvincing evidence" to support its claims.

Brain cells

ACT has rigorously defended its e-biomed paper and, at a conference sponsored by the Mary Ann Liebert publishing company that put out the human cloning study, revealed new information about its research.

Michael West said company researcher Jose Cibelli had got eggs taken from macaque monkeys to divide up to blastocyst size - the roughly 100 to 150-cell stage of an embryo when stem cells can be extracted - even though they had not been fertilised by sperm.

"We got 14% of them forming blastocysts and rather nice ones," West told the conference.

He said Cibelli and colleagues were able to pull cells out of one of the blastocysts that looked like embryonic stem cells. "These cells grow rather well," West said, adding that the cells were then coaxed into becoming neurons.

He claimed the neurons even secreted dopamine and serotonin, two important hormones produced in the brain.

The hope is that one day a person's own embryonic stem cells could be produced by a cloning procedure that used a small snippet of the individual's skin.

These stem cells would then be encouraged in the lab into becoming new brain cells to repair the damage done by Parkinson's, or to repair a heart damaged by heart attack, or to cure diabetes.

However, some critics say such work is unethical because it involves the creation and destruction of human embryos. They want the US Senate to back legislation already passed in the House of Representatives that would outlaw human cloning.

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