Science of the Lambs

Buying Dolly the duplicated sheep has brought researchers at the Bay Area's Geron Corp. to the threshold of remarkable frontiers in transplants and cloning. Do we want to follow their lead?

Inside a very plain building, in an ordinary industrial office park, in possibly the most unremarkable part of Menlo Park, a scientist named Dr. Calvin Harley matter-of-factly explains something so amazing it's downright spooky.

The chief scientific officer of Geron Corp. -- a relatively small biotechnology company -- is more unassuming, even, than the building that houses his laboratories, if that's possible.

Harley clearly possesses a brilliant mind, and the sort of quiet, brainy personality that selected short-sleeved plaid today. He is likely too nice for his own good, which helps explain why he's sitting in a conference room, attempting to illuminate science for a liberal arts major, when he'd really rather be back in the lab with people who already get it.

He's also visibly tired. Not so much from being a smart guy, but from traveling the globe, which comes with being a brilliant scientist in the '90s. There has been much to tell the world lately.

Within the past two years, Harley and the researchers at Geron have thrown science into warp speed with some major discoveries. They've produced body cells that don't age. They've refined the ability to transplant DNA. They're working on cloning embryos. They're learning how to grow custom tissue and organs for transplants -- human patches, you might say.

Last month, Geron bought the technology used to create Dolly, the famed Scottish sheep and poster ewe for cloning. Acquiring Dolly has placed Geron in a remarkable position.

Combined with Geron's own recent discoveries, the Dolly purchase has allowed the company to bring together three key pieces that may lead it to dominate a new frontier of transplant medicine.

Geron, someday, may be able to take an individual's DNA and use it to grow tissue and cells specifically for transplant in that person, all but eliminating the risks of rejection inherent in current transplant science. Animals, most likely pigs, could be used to grow organs that more easily replace the failing hearts, livers, or kidneys of humans.

"It's too early to say what a great discovery it is yet," says Harley, with the kind of guarded skepticism one might expect of a scientist. "The discovery of DNA really happened in 1953, but it wasn't appreciated until [later scientists learned] the structure of how it worked."

The prospects are breathtaking, but tinkering with such fundamentals has naturally landed Geron smack in the middle of a controversial and complicated international debate. Geron's science involves not only the ever-controversial cloning, but hot issues like whether it's ethical to use embryo and fetal tissue cells for research, and what limits should be placed on genetic re-engineering.

Last week, in fact, the British government surprised the world when it essentially rejected the recommendation of its own advisers and banned the cloning of human embryos for any kind of medical research.

A handful of companies are chasing the same leads as Geron, but the Menlo Park company has surged ahead. Its scientific leaps are making many people very nervous, and are likely to make some others very rich.

The company's work may well save lives, or at least significantly improve them. The end game is to be able to take a cell from a sick person, rejigger it, clone it, grow tissue from it, and put that back inside the patient to treat degenerative diseases like cancer and Parkinson's.

Considering that the same discoveries underpinning Geron's technology also created Dolly, and gave others ideas on how to build a better chicken or create cow-human hybrid cells, it's no surprise people are a little freaked out.

Harley is no mad scientist, despite the fact that his job title -- chief scientific officer -- is the same as possibly the most famous science fiction character ever, Star Trek's Dr. Spock. The Geron laboratories appear to be free of any large test tubes housing xenomorphs. There is no sign of Sigourney Weaver wandering the halls.

But the buzz is getting very loud. Scientists are talking about the next step. Religious leaders are pondering Geron's research. Politicians are unsure whether they should jump in. Is this Brave New World? The Island of Dr. Moreau? Blade Runner?

Or is it possible that Geron and its unassuming top scientists are blandly going where no man has gone before: beyond Hollywood?

The first big discovery was complex, and most people outside the scientific community probably did not grasp its significance.

It had to do with something called telomeres, strings of repeating DNA that cap the ends of chromosomes, sort of like ellipses at the end of a sentence.

Back in 1990, when Calvin Harley was still in his lab at McMaster University in Canada, the scientist discovered that telomeres get shorter as cells divide. A normal body cell, it turned out, could replicate 50 or 100 times before the telomeres ran out completely and that cell was essentially useless.

Since our cells are constantly replacing themselves, the discovery of the dwindling telomeres was interesting. Harley and other researchers began looking closely at them, and their role in cell division.

They found out that, in addition to telomeres, in some cells there exists an enzyme called telomerase, which is what makes cells divide. In fact, the reason the body loses its ability to repair itself in old age is because telomerase is lost with normal aging, so cells stop dividing. And, cells have to divide in order to grow and fix things.

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