Unfertilized monkey eggs make stem cells

A biotech firm recently made news by claiming to have cloned human embryos in order to produce medically useful stem cells (SN: 12/1/01, p. 341: Human-cloning claim creates controversy). At the time, Advanced Cell Technology of Worcester, Mass., also reported trying–unsuccessfully–to derive such cells from unfertilized human eggs undergoing a process called parthenogenesis. In some animals, that process occurs when eggs begin dividing without the normal input from a sperm cell.

MONKEY BUSINESS. Derived from unfertilized monkey eggs, these embryos develop stem cells as they grow. J. Cibelli et al./Science

In the Feb. 1 Science, scientists for the company and their colleagues at several other institutions report obtaining long-lived stem cells from monkey eggs stimulated to undergo parthenogenesis.

Depending on the growth conditions, the stem cells can develop into brain cells, beating heart cells, muscle tissue, and many other cell types, the investigators report.

Some birds, insects, and other animals can give birth to healthy animals via parthenogenesis, but mammals cant–their embryos begin to develop but soon die. Consequently, a few bioethicists and scientists have suggested that stems cells derived from parthenogenetic embryos would avoid some of the moral objections to stem cell research since they cant produce a viable baby. It remains unclear whether the parthenogenetically derived monkey cells are truly normal and safe for transplantation.