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Roslin Institute upset by human cloning suggestions

In an interview with Nature Medicine, the scientific director of the Roslin Institute, Harry Griffin, reacted angrily to a January TV report claiming the group had turned its back on promises not to clone people. Interviews with Ian Wilmut and other scientists had been "selectively edited" by Newsnight, a BBC current affairs program, to ignore the distinction between reproductive cloning of humans and human embryo cloning to generate stem cells for so-called 'spare part' transplants, says Griffin, adding, "we are pretty annoyed about [it]."

Griffin rejected criticism that the institute—which, shortly after announcing Dolly's arrival, stressed that the technology would be used to produce large quantities of biopharmaceuticals in farm animals (pharming)—was moving too rapidly into the forefront of human medicine. The institute, says Griffin, will continue to work on animals. "We know very little about how a somatic cell is re-programmed. That has wide implications for human stem-cell research and the creation of elite farm animals. There is a lot of work to be done in animals first," says Griffin.

But the idea that the institute, and Wilmut in particular, has transferred its interests to the human rather than the livestock side of research has been put forward by more than just the BBC. In January it was widely reported that that Wilmut was believed to be in discussions with Geron, the company that funded the recent breakthrough in stem cell research at the University of Madison-Wisconsin (Science 282 1145-7; 1998). And last year the institute entered into a xenotransplantation agreement with Kimeragen, which has developed a technique for selectively knocking-out unwanted genes, such as that for alpha (1-3) galactose, a carbohydrate moiety found on cell-surface glycoproteins that is involved in rejection of transplanted organs.

The misunderstanding may lie in where the institute ends and Roslin's biotechnology companies begin. The creation of Dolly has not only thrust the once obscure Roslin Institute into the human cloning limelight, but also onto the stock market. At the time that Dolly was created, UK government organizations were not allowed to hold shares in spin-off companies. As a result, none of the Institute's scientists benefited when PPL Therapeutics was established in 1997 to exploit the Institute's nuclear transfer technique to produce drugs in milk.

But the rules have now been changed. The institute stands to make money from its 43 percent stake in Roslin Bio-Med, a second spin-off created last year to commercialize the institute's nuclear transfer technology, when the company is floated on the stock exchange or sold to a bigger biotech company in 5–7 years' time. Roslin Bio-Med has an exclusive license to use the institute's nuclear transfer technology for biomedical applications of genetically modified animals.

The new company is owned jointly by the institute and UK venture capital group 3i, which has committed £6 million to fund the project for three years. As much as 16 percent of Roslin Bio-Med's shares, worth an estimated £2 million, have been put aside as stock options to reward research staff. Wilmut is the scientific director of Roslin Bio-Med and now divides his time equally between public service and private enterprise, reaffirming the idea that he is no longer focused solely on pharming.

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Firn, D. Roslin Institute upset by human cloning suggestions. Nat Med 5, 253 (1999). https://doi.org/10.1038/6449

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