Nov. 14, 2007 -- Scientists today announced that they have created the first lab-made embryonic stem cells from monkeys.
Stem cells are cells that can develop into other types of cells. Embryonic stem cells are thought to have the widest range of developmental possibilities.
This is the first time that embryonic stem cells have been made by researchers working with primates, and it may help scientists study human diseases in a monkey model.
The researchers may also have found a way to create embryonic stem cells directly from eggs without making any embryos, which may answer ethical issues related to stem cell work.
Such stem cells could be a "viable option in the future," Shoukhrat Mitalipov, PhD, told reporters.
Mitalipov works at Oregon Health & Science University's Oregon National Primate Research Center and Oregon Stem Cell Center.
Making Monkey Embryonic Stem Cells
The researchers tweaked genetic technology that's been used to clone mice and other animals.
Basically, they stripped the DNA out of a female monkey's egg, fused a skin cell from a male monkey into that egg, and let an embryo develop and produce embryonic stem cells.
Two lines of embryonic stem cells were created. But the process wasn't efficient, with a success rate of less than 1%, according to the study, which appears online in Nature.
"We believe it can be significantly improved if we understand the basics of reprogramming the egg," says Mitalipov.
An independent team of scientists confirmed that the monkey embryos were indeed the result of the technique used by Mitalipov's team.
Mitalipov says the study proves the idea that the genetic reprogramming process can work in producing embryonic stem cells.
No Monkey Clone
There aren't any cloned baby monkeys arising from this experiment. "We didn't clone a monkey," Mitalipov says. "At this point, we don't know whether the early embryos we're creating are capable to develop full-term."
The scientists also didn't try transplanting the embryonic stem cells back into the male monkey.
In the future, Mitalipov suggests using the technique to study diseases such as diabetes in monkeys.
"At least we could understand the progression of the disease and hopefully we could develop approaches to treat[ment]," says Mitalipov.
Stem Cells Without Embryos
Mitalipov says his team found that it may be possible to get stem cells derived from eggs, not embryos.
"We have a project where we actually don't create any embryo -- nothing resembling embryos," Mitalipov says, adding that that work hasn't been published yet.
Creating stem cells is a first step, with a lot of work ahead before any treatments result.
For instance, scientists need to figure out how to prevent genetically reprogrammed cells from becoming a cancer risk, notes an editorial published with the monkey stem cell study in Nature.
The editorialists included Ian Wilmut, a professor of reproductive science at Scotland's University of Edinburgh.