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A trick that persuades human eggs to divide as if they have been fertilised could provide a source of embryonic stem cells that sidesteps ethical objections to existing techniques. It could also be deployed to improve the success rate of IVF.
“Embryos” created by the procedure do not contain any paternal chromosomes – just two sets of chromosomes from the mother – and so cannot develop into babies. This should remove the ethical objections that some people have to harvesting from donated human embryos. There are high hopes that stem cells, which can develop into many different cell types, could be used to treat a range of diseases.
The tricked eggs divide for four or five days until they reach 50 to 100 cells – the blastocyst stage. These blastocysts should in theory yield stem cells, but because they are parthenogenetic – produced from the egg only – they cannot be viewed as a potential human life, says Karl Swann of the University of Wales College of Medicine in Cardiff, UK.
“This could eliminate one of the main sources of ethical controversy in this research,” says Bob Lanza, head of research at the cloning company Advanced Cell Technology in Worcester, Massachusetts.