In genetics and developmental biology, somatic cell nuclear transfer (SCNT) is a laboratory strategy for creating a viable embryo from a body cell and an egg cell. The technique consists of taking an enucleated oocyte (egg cell) and implanting a donor nucleus from a somatic (body) cell. It is used in both therapeutic and reproductive cloning. Dolly the Sheep became famous for being the first successful case of the reproductive cloning of a mammal. "Therapeutic cloning" refers to the potential use of SCNT in regenerative medicine; this approach has been championed as an answer to the many issues concerning embryonic stem cells (ESC) and the destruction of viable embryos for medical use, though questions remain on how homologous the two cell types truly are.
The process of somatic cell nuclear transplant involves two different cells. The first being a female gamete, known as the ovum (egg/oocyte). In human SCNT experiments, these eggs are obtained through consenting donors, many times utilizing ovarian stimulation. The second being a somatic cell, referring to the cells of the human body. Skin cells, fat cells, and liver cells are only a few examples. The nucleus of the donor egg cell is removed and discarded, leaving it 'deprogrammed.' The nucleus of the somatic cell is also removed but is kept, the enucleated somatic cell is discarded. What is left is a lone somatic nucleus and an enucleated egg cell. These are then fused by squirting the somatic nucleus into the 'empty' ovum. After being inserted into the egg, the somatic cell nucleus is reprogrammed by its host egg cell. The ovum, now containing the somatic cell's nucleus, is stimulated with a shock and will begin to divide. The egg is now viable and capable of producing an adult organism containing all the necessary genetic information from just one parent. Development will ensue normally and after many mitotic divisions, this single cell forms a blastocyst (an early stage embryo with about 100 cells) with an identical genome to the original organism (i.e. a clone). Stem cells can then be obtained by the destruction of this clone embryo for use in therapeutic cloning or in the case of reproductive cloning the clone embryo is implanted into a host mother for further development and brought to term.
Somatic cell nuclear transplantation has become a focus of study in stem cell research. The aim of carrying out this procedure is to obtain pluripotent cells from a cloned embryo. These cells genetically matched the donor organism from which they came.This gives them the ability to create patient specific pluripotent cells, which could then be used in therapies or disease research.
Embryonic stem cells are undifferentiated cells of an embryo. These cells are deemed to have a pluripotent potential because they have the ability to give rise to all of the tissues found in an adult organism. This ability allows stem cells to create any cell type, which could then be transplanted to replace damaged or destroyed cells. Controversy surrounds human ESC work due to the destruction of viable human embryos. Leading scientists to seek an alternative method of obtaining stem cells, SCNT is one such method.
A potential use of stem cells genetically matched to a patient would be to create cell lines that have genes linked to a patient's particular disease. By doing so, an in vitro model could be created, would be useful for studying that particular disease, potentially discovering its pathophysiology, and discovering therapies. For example, if a person with Parkinson's disease donated his or her somatic cells, the stem cells resulting from SCNT would have genes that contribute to Parkinson's disease. The disease specific stem cell lines could then be studied in order to better understand the condition.
Another application of SCNT stem cell research is using the patient specific stem cell lines to generate tissues or even organs for transplant into the specific patient. The resulting cells would be genetically identical to the somatic cell donor, thus avoiding any complications from immune system rejection.
Only a handful of the labs in the world are currently using SCNT techniques in human stem cell research. In the United States, scientists at the Harvard Stem Cell Institute, the University of California San Francisco, the Oregon Health & Science University,Stemagen (La Jolla, CA) and possibly Advanced Cell Technology are currently researching a technique to use somatic cell nuclear transfer to produce embryonic stem cells. In the United Kingdom, the Human Fertilisation and Embryology Authority has granted permission to research groups at the Roslin Institute and the Newcastle Centre for Life. SCNT may also be occurring in China.
In 2005, a South Korean research team led by Professor Hwang Woo-suk, published claims to have derived stem cell lines via SCNT, but supported those claims with fabricated data. Recent evidence has proved that he in fact created a stem cell line from a parthenote.
Though there has been numerous successes with cloning animals, questions remain concerning the mechanisms of reprogramming in the ovum. Despite many attempts, success in creating human nuclear transfer embryonic stem cells has been limited. There lies a problem in the human cell's ability to form a blastocyst; the cells fail to progress past the eight cell stage of development. This is thought to be a result from the somatic cell nucleus being unable to turn on embryonic genes crucial for proper development. These earlier experiments used procedures developed in non-primate animals with little success. A research group from the Oregon Health & Science University demonstrated SCNT procedures developed for primates successfully reprogrammed skin cells into stem cells. The key to their success was utilizing oocytes in metaphase II (MII) of the cell cycle. Egg cells in MII contain special factors in the cytoplasm that have a special ability in reprogramming implanted somatic cell nuclei into cells with pluripotent states. When the ovum's nucleus is removed, the cell loses its genetic information. This has been blamed for why enucleated eggs are hampered in their reprogramming ability. It is theorized the critical embryonic genes are physically linked to oocyte chromosomes, enucleation negatively affects these factors. Another possibility is removing the egg nucleus or inserting the somatic nucleus causes damage to the cytoplast, affecting reprogramming ability. Taking this into account the research group applied their new technique in an attempt to produce human SCNT stem cells. In May 2013, the Oregon group reported the successful derivation of human embryonic stem cell lines derived through SCNT, using fetal and infant donor cells. Using MII oocytes from volunteers and their improved SCNT procedure, human clone embryos were successfully produced. These embryos were of poor quality, lacking a substantial inner cell mass and poorly constructed trophectoderm. The imperfect embryos prevented the acquisition of human ESC. The addition of caffeine during the removal of the ovum's nucleus and injection of the somatic nucleus improved blastocyst formation and ESC isolation. The ESC obtain were found to be capable of producing teratomas, expressed pluripotent transcription factors, and expressed a normal 46XX karyotype, indicating these SCNT were in fact ESC-like. This was the first instance of successfully using SCNT to reprogram human somatic cells. This study used fetal and infantile somatic cells to produce their ESC.
In April 2014, an international research team expanded on this break through. There remained the question of whether the same success could be accomplished using adult somatic cells. Epigenetic and age related changes were thought to possibly hinder an adult somatic cells ability to be reprogrammed. Implementing the procedure pioneered by the Oregon research group they indeed were able to grow stem cells generated by SCNT using adult cells from two donors, aged 35 and 75.Indicating age does not impede a cells ability to be reprogrammed
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