Can organs be cloned for use in transplants?
Scientists hope that one day therapeutic cloning can be used to generate tissues and organs for transplants. To do this, DNA would be extracted from the person in need of a transplant and inserted into an enucleated egg. After the egg containing the patient's DNA starts to divide, embryonic stem cells that can be transformed into any type of tissue would be harvested. The stem cells would be used to generate an organ or tissue that is a genetic match to the recipient. In theory, the cloned organ could then be transplanted into the patient without the risk of tissue rejection. If organs could be generated from cloned human embryos, the need for organ donation could be significantly reduced.
Many challenges must be overcome before "cloned organ" transplants become reality. More effective technologies for creating human embryos, harvesting stem cells, and producing organs from stem cells would have to be developed. In 2001, scientists with the biotechnology company Advanced Cell Technology (ACT) reported that they had cloned the first human embryos; however, the only embryo to survive the cloning process stopped developing after dividing into six cells. In February 2002, scientists with the same biotech company reported that they had successfully transplanted kidney-like organs into cows.
The team of researchers created a cloned cow embryo by removing the DNA from an egg cell and then injecting the DNA from the skin cell of the donor cow's ear. Since little is known about manipulating embryonic stem cells from cows, the scientists let the cloned embryos develop into fetuses. The scientists then harvested fetal tissue from the clones and transplanted it into the donor cow. In the three months of observation following the transplant, no sign of immune rejection was observed in the transplant recipient.
Another potential application of cloning to organ transplants is the creation of genetically modified pigs from which organs suitable for human transplants could be harvested. The transplant of organs and tissues from animals to humans is called xenotransplantation.
Why pigs? Primates would be a closer match genetically to humans, but they are more difficult to clone and have a much lower rate of reproduction. Of the animal species that have been cloned successfully, pig tissues and organs are more similar to those of humans. To create a "knock-out" pig, scientists must inactivate the genes that cause the human immune system to reject an implanted pig organ.
The genes are knocked out in individual cells, which are then used to create clones from which organs can be harvested. In 2002, a British biotechnology company reported that it was the first to produce "double knock-out" pigs that have been genetically engineered to lack both copies of a gene involved in transplant rejection. More research is needed to study the transplantation of organs from "knock-out" pigs to other animals.