News from the Field - Fall 2003

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Scientists Hail Completion of the Comprehensive Human Genome Map

The daunting initiative known as the Human Genome Project has now been completed. This astounding achievement—realized 2 years ahead of schedule—was announced in mid-April by the International Human Genome Sequencing Consortium and the US Department of Energy. The completion of the “draft” sequence of the human genome was announced in 2000 at a White House ceremony. This draft has now been converted into a “finished” sequence of 99.99% accuracy. While the sequence is now in hand, questions remain about how many genes human beings possess, with estimates ranging between 25,000 and 30,000. The entire project cost $2.6 billion to complete, which was $400 million under budget.

Scientists are now looking to the immediate future and what they believe can be accomplished in the genetic arena. The new NIH roadmap for genomic research includes gene-based drug creation, better genetic testing, research into how race and ethnicity affect people’s responses to medicine, and research into how behavior is affected by genetics.

Embryonic Stem Cells Used to Create Eggs

Contradicting a belief long held by many that gametes could not be grown outside the body, a team of US and French researchers have prompted mouse embryonic stem cells to produce mouse eggs.The researchers indicated that this is the first time anyone has demonstrated that embryonic stem cells are truly totipotent—capable of becoming any cell type. Some scientists believe that this proves the unlimited functional elasticity of embryonic stem cells; however, it is still unknown how the cells may be manipulated to become whatever cell type is desired.

The researchers are now trying to determine if the result ing eggs can be fertilized and undergo normal development, If successful and the process can be replicated in humans, this new procedure may provide a way to “artificially” create human eggs for use in cloning and fertility treatments. In addition to being created and destroyed for their parts, human embryos could then also become genetic fathers and mothers even though they have never developed beyond the embryonic stage.

400,000 Human Embryos Cryopreserved in the US

A survey by the Rand Corporation of Santa Ana, California has discovered that about 400,000 human embryos are currently cryopreserved (frozen) in fertility clinics around the country. Previous estimates ranged from tens of thousands to 200,000. The new figure has some people complaining about the lack of regulation of the fertility industry, while some scientists are upset that the embryos are not being put to good use in their research labs instead of remaining suspended in a frozen state.

Of the 400,000 embryos in preservation:

  • 87% are intended for ongoing fertility treatments
  • 3% are earmarked for research
  • 2% are slated for destruction
  • 2% are reserved for donation to other women
  • 1% are intended for "quality-assurance" studies
  • 5% are not designated or identified as having any particular purpose

Not all fertility clinics responded to the survey, so Rand was forced to speculate somewhat as to the total number of cryopreserved embryos.The 400,000 figure was noted as being a “conservative” estimate.

MIT and the US Army Form Institute for Soldier Nanotechnoloqies

The Massachusetts Institute of Technology has been awarded a $50 million contract to begin work on creating combat gear using nanotechnology—technology that employs materials the size of atoms.The goal is to create uniforms that protect soldiers against any element in the environment. US Army Chief Scientist Michael Andrews pointed to the alien in the movie “Predator” as an illustration of what the Army hopes to achieve—uniforms that make soldiers appear somewhat invisible, give them the ability to leap over walls, and assist in the treatment of injuries. Other innovations that the new institute hopes to develop include the weaving of radios and transmitters directly into fabric and (eventually) increased protection against projectiles. Several corporations are assisting in these efforts.