With Charm And Money, The Scientific Elite Join The Battle. The Uconn Embryologist Vies With His Own Mortality.

Medical ResearchHealthScienceGovernmentNational GovernmentDiseases and Illnesses

Dressed in a dark wool coat that protects him against the bitter November wind of the North China plain, Xiangzhong ``Jerry'' Yang looks down at his grave site as television cameras record the moment.

The right half of his face, the half not disfigured by surgery to remove cancerous tumors from under his eye, twitches slightly as he looks at the plot. It is located only a few hundred yards from where he tended pigs as a teenager.

``This,'' Yang says simply, ``is where I want to rest.''

On this blustery day in the fall of 2003, the 44-year-old Yang is framed by dozens of residents of Dong Cun, who have turned out to welcome home a former neighbor and now, a national hero. Yang's cloning success in America is celebrated throughout China. The film crew is making a documentary that will be broadcast to hundreds of millions of viewers in his native country. In this village where he nearly starved four decades earlier, they already know his story by heart.

Yang has faith he can fulfill his ultimate dream before cancer brings him back to this site for the last time. Thousands of miles away in Storrs, he is laying plans to create human embryonic stem cells through cloning in an effort to find new cures for heart disease, Parkinson's, maybe even cancer someday.

His own cancer stalled for now, he is hoping to find a way to cheat death, if only on the molecular level.

At the same time, in labs scattered across the world, a handful of elite international scientists have the same idea.

And they are determined to get there first.

Yang's competition is formidable. The other researchers have money, charm, good looks, prestige and the backing of renowned scientific institutions. Yang is a diminutive animal embryologist who labors with English and works in the relative obscurity of a laboratory in sleepy Storrs.

Kevin Eggan is a certifiable hot-shot. Before turning 30, Eggan had built a national reputation at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology for his cloning work with mice and his investigation into DNA reprogramming. Now at Harvard, Eggan's honors pile up like blurbs on a book jacket: ``Top 10 Brilliant Minds'' (Popular Science) and ``Top Innovator Under the Age of 35'' (Technology Review).

To coeds in Cambridge, the 6-foot-2 bachelor scientist with the rugged physique of an avid rock climber is a stem cell sex symbol. As his cloning ambitions become public, he becomes ``Mad Harvard Scientist'' to right-to-life bloggers.

But Eggan, like Yang, is unfazed by the mounting political, cultural and financial barriers to cloning. The field is littered with wounded reputations, regulatory booby-traps and ethical land mines, which have chased many scientists from the field. But Eggan keeps his focus on a key biological question:

What is the best way to reprogram DNA to become young again?

Eggan has explored many different ways to get a human's older cells to turn back the developmental clock and regain the potential to become any cell type. Cloning -- or somatic cell nuclear transfer -- is just one of many techniques. But Eggan argues that it is silly not to pursue cloning; it is the only way, so far, that has been proven able to create young cells from old DNA.

Eggan agrees with staunch foes of embryonic stem cell research about one thing: It is unlikely cloning will be of much value, at least in the short run, in creating enough genetically identical cells to create new organs or tissue.

It will, however, be invaluable in studying how mankind's diseases evolve and in developing new treatments, Eggan has come to believe.

MEDICAL BLACK BOX

The symptoms of many degenerative diseases, such as Parkinson's or Alzheimer's, appear only after the damage at the cellular level is done, Eggan explains. Before Type 1 diabetes is diagnosed, for example, almost all insulin-producing islet cells in the pancreas have been destroyed by immune system attacks.

Now, for scientists to isolate the molecular underpinnings of these diseases, they have to perform an after-the-fact guessing game, the medical equivalent of finding the cause of a plane crash by assembling pieces of a fuselage.

With embryonic stem cells made young again by cloning the DNA of a chronically ill patient, medical scientists might be able to actually re-create the devastation -- watching step by step as a medical tragedy unfolds in a lab dish. As scientists watch the disease process unfold, at each stage they might discover new ways to diagnose, intervene or even cure the disease.

One of the biggest supporters of Eggan's cloning crusade is Harvard diabetes researcher Doug Melton, the George Washington of the embryonic stem cell revolution -- ready and able to defy intrusive government regulation.

Since August 2001, when President Bush prohibited use of federal funds for research with embryonic cells created after that date, most scientists haven't even considered using new cells. With almost every microscope, chemical agent and post-doc's salary paid for with federal funding, the cost of rebellion would be too high.

Not for Melton.

``I'll go raise my own money,'' he responds.

Melton, trim in appearance and direct in approach, is perfectly positioned to lead the fight. He is an established and highly respected diabetes researcher at Harvard, and an investigator at the privately funded Howard Hughes Medical Institute, a medical research fund founded by the quixotic aviator.

Making his sales pitch to potential backers of embryonic stem cell research, Melton is methodical and relentlessly rational. His message also carries an undertone of passion. Although he doesn't always mention it, he has two children with Type 1 diabetes.

To the surprise of Harvard officials, millions of dollars in philanthropic donations pour into the new Harvard Stem Cell Institute, led by Melton. The institute uses the money to create dozens of new embryonic stem cell lines he distributes at cost to research laboratories around the world.

Like Eggan, Melton believes cloning needs to be explored, as does Harvard leukemia researcher George Daley at Boston Children's Hospital.

Other researchers and universities take note of Melton's success and the lesson it teaches: At the University of California at San Francisco, a $5 million grant from Andy Grove, Intel's chief executive, rejuvenates that school's human cloning initiative, moribund since the late 1990s. Cutting edge research is no longer dependent on federal funding, which has supported science for decades. Private patrons are ready and willing to underwrite science the government deems too controversial and risky.

REMOVING ROADBLOCKS

While the momentum for human cloning is building in the United States, many roadblocks remain.

As federal budget deficits grow, young researchers at UCSF and other universities find it more difficult to get funding for any kind of risky research and remain hesitant to stake their careers on contentious experiments like human cloning.

In Massachusetts, Melton and Eggan are forced to navigate tricky political waters. Their plan is opposed by then-Gov. Mitt Romney, a Republican governor with presidential aspirations. They also need to wade through a labyrinth of ethical and political concerns as they seek approval from their own hospitals and institutions.

Outside of the U.S, however, foreign governments with fewer ethical problems open up their coffers. Singapore, South Korea, China and other countries start to pour money into embryonic stem cell programs. Even Spain, among the most Catholic of European countries, promises to back an embryo cloning initiative.

Individual states, as well, jump in to fill the void left by federal policy. California voters in 2004 approve $3 billion for stem cell research.

Lawmakers in New Jersey and Connecticut consider whether to earmark state funds. Back in Storrs, Yang sees state funding as the fuel he needs to propel his animal-focused research into the forefront of human embryo cloning.

Yang may not have the charisma of Eggan, the stature of Melton nor the fame of Scottish embryologist Ian Wilmut. He does not work for a major research institution. But he does have as much experience cloning animals as anyone in the world and a staff of scientists at his disposal at UConn to assist him.

Now he has the potential financial backing as well. Lawmakers in Connecticut are preparing to pass a stem cell research bill that not only will make $100 million available for stem cell research over 10 years, but also will expressly authorize somatic cell nuclear transfer, or cloning.

Yang is brimming with confidence when in May 2005, the prestigious journal Science drops a scientific bombshell. Hwang Woo Suk of South Korea claims that he has created not just one, but 11, separate embryonic stem cell lines through cloning and that he did so with an efficiency few thought possible.

Yang is stunned.

The worldwide headlines make Hwang a national hero in South Korea, which promptly proclaims itself the Stem Cell Hub of the World. The race to clone a human embryo for stem cells is over, even before Yang and his competitors leave the gate.

For the second time in his life, Yang experiences the bittersweet taste of being left in the wake of a major scientific advance. Like the day Wilmut published his paper on the creation of Dolly the sheep through cloning, Yang believes Hwang's achievement will open up a new era of medical research. He has no doubt that with more time, his own lab might have achieved the same feat. Yang believes he has overestimated how long it would take scientists to create a human embryo through cloning.

Now, he resigns himself to spending the next few years trying to duplicate the work of another scientist.

Hwang's announcement stalls cloning efforts in other labs around the world. Doubting they can match Hwang's ability to create new embryonic stem cell lines, scientists instead talk to Hwang about acquiring cloned cell lines from South Korea for research.

But as 2005 comes to a close, a few disturbing reports begin to trickle out of South Korea questioning the veracity of Hwang's research. By early 2006, he is revealed as a fraud. Science retracts Hwang's entire paper.

Yang is back in the game.

Copyright © 2014, Los Angeles Times
Comments
Loading