Almost two decades ago, scientists succeeded in cloning Dolly the sheep. Now, the same process has been allowed scientists to clone embryonic stem cells from fetal human skin cells for the very first time. There are no more barriers between us and creating human clones.
Cloning in and of itself has been within our reach for a while. Cloning non-human animals has been on the table for nearly two decades, dating back to Dolly the sheep way back in 1996. Cloning human cells has always been a bit rougher of a prospect, partly because it’s just hard, and partly because experimenting with it is ground that needs to be tread very very carefully.
This breakthrough accomplishment, performed by Shoukhrat Mitalipov of Oregon Health & Science University and his colleagues, makes use of a technique called nuclear transfer. In its most basic sense, nuclear transfer is the process of taking one cell—in this case a skin cell—and inserting it into an egg cell that’s had its DNA removed, which is then coaxed into dividing. Or in other words, it’s sort of like fertilizing an egg cell with a fully formed cell of another sort, instead of a sperm.
This process results in a ball of stem cells that can be grown into a full-fledged clone if it’s allowed to keep developing. That’s how we’ve gotten every successful clone to date, including Dolly back in 1996. But until now, that had never worked with human cells. As documented in the journal Cell, Mitalipov and company have managed to pull off the process using skin cells of a human fetus as fertilizer, creating a whole bunch of embryonic stem cells that could go on to grow into a cloned human being. Not that anyone’s planning to actually do that. Ever. These cells are for medical treatment. Stuff like treating nerve and heart damage.