May 31, 2020

The Niche

Knoepfler lab stem cell blog

The Odd Couple of Cloning Research: Mitalipov & Woo Suk Hwang Unite

Remember that old TV show the Odd Couple with very proper Felix Unger and his polar opposite Oscar Madison who has all kinds of baggage?

They’ve cloned it into a remake to be on TV soon here in the US in 2015.

It seems only fitting then that actual human cloning research has a new odd couple of a sorts of its own as well.

Hwang Mitalipov

One part of this pairing is Woo Suk Hwang, who is most well known for past fraudulent and unethical human therapeutic cloning research. Hwang has been making somewhat of a comeback lately (see here).

Perhaps another sign of this resurgence efforts is the news from Science (and source article in Korean) that Hwang is teaming up with US therapeutic cloning pioneer, Shoukhrat Mitalipov, in a joint commercial venture. For more on Mitalipov’s past groundbreaking human therapeutic cloning efforts see here.

The respected Mitalipov and the formerly disgraced Hwang, who is trying to move beyond a dark past, make for an unusual pairing. We might even call them the odd couple of cloning.

The piece from Science on this development by Ahn Mi-Young and Dennis Normile includes the photo above of Mitalipov (left) and Hwang (2nd from right) sealing the deal and provides some background on two:

“Despite his claims being deemed fraudulent by a Seoul National University panel, Hwang was awarded an American patent covering his technique in February 2014. Shoukhrat Mitalipov, of the Oregon Health & Science University in Portland, made a series of breakthroughs in primate stem cell research in recent years. He reported in May 2013 using the Dolly technique, known more formally as somatic cell nuclear transfer, to derive stem cells from cloned human embryos, including from a baby with an inherited disorder. More recently he has published several papers related to gene replacement to prevent inherited mitochondrial diseases. He also founded MitoGenome Therapeutics, reportedly to commercialize his work.”

I don’t know about you, but this venture between Mitalipov’s Mitogenome and Hwang along with BoyaLife, which will reportedly put up more than $90 million into the effort, strikes me as a major development. As I’ve written in the past, collaborations of researchers doing animal reproductive cloning experiments and human therapeutic cloning experiments has complicated implications.

February 15 update: In a more recent interview of Mitalipov in NatureNews, planned research collaboration between Mitalipov and Hwang is denied.

Mitalipov also has been in the news this week for another reason, indicating that he has asked FDA approval to use so-called 3-person IVF “mitochondrial transfer” technology, which shares some technical elements with cloning, to treat infertility. This struck some in the UK including some members of Parliament as surprising as they had been told this technology would only be used to treat mitochondrial diseases.

His company Mitogenome is working in this area. One possibility is that the joint venture in China in a relatively permissive regulatory sphere might allow Mitogenome to immediately start 3-person IVF technology there rather than potentially waiting years in the US for FDA approval. The Science piece only gives some hints as to what may be coming down the pipeline:

“The newspaper says initially work will focus on animal cloning but eventually move on to work with human materials. Mitalipov’s “strength is in primate stem cells. My specialty is in cell nuclear transplantation. So we’ve agreed that if we combine his strength with mine, we can create a breakthrough outcome in curing maternal line genetic disease, on which he is now focusing,” the paper quotes Hwang as saying. Hwang said they will place their laboratory in China to avoid Korea’s strict bioethics regulations.”

It will be important to learn much more specifically what the Mitalipov-Hwang venture will be trying to achieve now and in the future. I have emailed Mitalipov a few questions on this situation to get some additional info and will post his reply if I get one.

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