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Company behind the clones: Advanced Cell Technology

A gaur like these -- endangered Asian oxen -- was cloned in January by ACT researchers. It died 48 hours later of dysentery the company said was unrelated to the cloning.
A gaur like these -- endangered Asian oxen -- was cloned in January by ACT researchers. It died 48 hours later of dysentery the company said was unrelated to the cloning.  

By Porter Anderson

(CNN) -- The controversy stirred by Sunday's news of human embryonic cell cloning isn't new to officers of Advanced Cell Technology Inc. in Worcester, Massachusetts.

ACT was formed in 1994 and has three areas of primary focus: cloning transgenic cows for making human medicines in milk; cloning animals for use in cell and tissue transplants, and cloning human stem cells for medical work.

In its statement on the human-embryo research -- results of which were published in the Journal of Regenerative Medicine -- the company's vice president of medical and scientific development, Dr. Robert P. Lanza, foresaw criticism and said: "Our intention is not to create cloned human beings, but rather to make lifesaving therapies for a wide range of human disease conditions, including diabetes, strokes, cancer, AIDS and neurodegenerative disorders such as Parkinson’s and Alzheimer’s disease.”

Firm says it created human embryo through cloning 

CNN Access: "I'm just trying to help people who are sick"  An interview with Michael West, ACT's president
In-Depth: The stem cell debate 
Message board: Human embryo use 
How it was done

The technique used by Advanced Cell Technology scientists is called somatic cell nuclear transfer, also referred to as human therapeutic cloning.

A cell from a patient's body is combined with an egg cell that has had its DNA removed. This reprograms the body cell's DNA back to an embryonic state, and stem cells identical to the patient's are produced. Stem cells can form any cell or tissue in the human body.

Of eight eggs, two divided to form early embryos composed of four cells. One progressed to a six-cell stage before it stopped dividing. This breakthrough occurred October 13, 2001.

Source: Advanced Cell Technology Inc.

Just days before the release of the human-embryo news, a different phase of ACT's work was being challenged by Rudolf Jaenisch, a biologist and animal cloning pioneer at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology's Whitehead Institute. The issue then was ACT's assertion that 24 surviving cloned cows (of 30) are "clinically ... normal."

"To say they are normal is not correct," Jaenisch told Reuters. "They are normal by the criteria they (ACT researchers) used. These criteria are very superficial." Jaenisch also noted that it took more than 400 implanted embryos to produce the 30 cloned cows.

But ACT's team maintained the company's claim of the cloned cows' normality is correct: "We did not observe genetic defects, immune deficiencies, gross obesity or other drastic abnormalities cited by other researchers," researchers wrote in their report.

The New York Times described ACT in 1998 as a startup biotech firm wholly owned by Avian Farms, a Maine poultry genetics company. ACT currently lists three subsidiaries of its own -- Cyagra, for work with livestock; Cima Biotechnology, which focuses on avian cloning; and Em Tran (short for Embryo Transfer), which applies genetic research to the interests of cattle breeders.

In its corporate profile, ACT characterizes itself as "a company engaged in the research and development of technologies enabling the genetic manipulation of cells to produce transgenic animals for pharmaceutical protein production. The company is also developing transgenic cloned cells and tissues for applications in cell and organ transplant therapy."

In other words, the company's stated interest is in gene manipulation in animals for the purpose of genetic therapy for humans.

Its executive staff is headed by CEO Michael D. West; Jose Cibelli, vice president of research, and Lanza.

Under their direction, the company has produced a steady drumbeat of research announcements for four years:

-- October 1997: ACT and Genzyme Transgenics Corp. announced a joint effort to produce "human therapeutic proteins in the milk of cloned transgenic cattle."

-- January 1998: The births of Charlie and George, two calves created by combining cloning techniques and genetic engineering, were announced as the culmination of four years' research by ACT's Steven Stice and the University of Massachusetts' James Robl.

George and Charlie are two of Advanced Cell Technology's cloned cows.
George and Charlie are two of Advanced Cell Technology's cloned cows.  

-- April 1998: ACT and University of Colorado researchers announced that they'd successfully treated "Parkinsonism in rats by using fetal brain cells from cloned cows."

-- November 1998: ACT announced the development of a method of producing "primitive human embryonic stem cells through nuclear transfer techniques" -- cloning. In August 1999, the company announced that a patent had been issued for this method to the University of Massachusetts with ACT as the exclusive licensee.

-- April 2000: ACT announced in the journal Science that it had been able to reverse the natural deterioration over time of "telomeres," or ends of chromosomes -- the statement termed this "the successful reversal of the aging process in cells. Our results show that cloning actually has the potential to reverse the aging of cells,” said Lanza. “This has profound implications for treating age-related disease and for understanding the actual mechanisms behind the aging process.”

-- October 2000: ACT announced what it said was the first successful cloning of an endangered animal to late-stage fetal development. The animal in question was a guar, a large wild ox found in Southeast Asia. ACT also announced a contract with the government of Spain to clone the extinct bucardo mountain goat (the last of these goats died in January 2000 and tissue was preserved).

-- January 2001: ACT reported the birth of Noah, a cloned baby bull gaur which died 48 hours later of "a common dysentery likely unrelated to cloning."

-- March 2001: Cyagra -- the livestock division of ACT -- reported the births of two cloned calves at the University of Pennsylvania College of Veterinary Medicine.

To clone the gaur, scientists placed a gaur nucleus inside the egg cell of a cow.
To clone the gaur, scientists placed a gaur nucleus inside the egg cell of a cow.  

-- October 2001: ACT announced a $1.9 million research grant from the National Institute of Standards and Technology. The distinction about this grant's focus is in "transdifferentiation," which involves using a person's own skin cells -- rather than animal cells or embryonic stem cells -- to generate new cells for transplants back into same person. The aim here is to reduce the possibility of immune rejection of transplanted cells.

ACT's board structure includes an Ethics Advisory Board. Among its members are Ronald Green, a professor of religion and director of Dartmouth College's Ethics Institute; Dr. Kenneth Goodman, who directs the University of Miami's Bioethics Program; and Carol Tauer, senior scholar with the Minnesota Center for Health Care Ethics.


• Advanced Cell Technology Inc.
• Cima Biotechnology Inc.
• Cyagra LLC
• E-biomed: The Journal of Regenerative Medicine
• Em Tran
• National Institute of Standards and Technology

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