Armed with superior mouse-cloning skills, he is now tackling human disease.
When Kevin Eggan went from mouse cloning to human-embryonic-stem-cell research, his working conditions took a dive. An unlisted phone number, uncertain funding, and the remote chance of physical harm from a rogue protester are now part of the territory, and his lab is hidden behind an unmarked door. But Eggan, 31, isn't deterred by the political maelstrom that surrounds his chosen field. In fact, the brutally high stakes drew him in. The idea that his knack for solving tricky cloning problems could help cure diseases like Parkinson's, Alzheimer's and diabetes was too seductive a prospect to ignore. "It just evolved into a palpable feeling that this thing, which had been an intellectual pursuit, really had a chance to help people," he says.
Eggan began grad school at MIT in 1998, months after the birth of Dolly, the first cloned mammal. He immediately set out to master the delicate art of cloning, before the technique was fully understood. "Kevin doesn't waste his time trying to do trivial things," says Alan Colman, one of Dolly's creators and the CEO of ES Cell International in Singapore. Slipping the DNA from an adult cell into an egg that has had its own genetic material removed, then coaxing it into a living thing, requires the crazed intensity of a watchmaker operating on a clock the width of a human hair. "I locked myself in a windowless room with a microscope for a year and worked at it every day," Eggan says.
Last year Eggan accomplished an extreme act of cloning, using one of the most specialized cell types in the body, an olfactory sensory neuron. After marking the neurons with a fluorescent protein, he produced live mice in which every cell was a resplendent green-proof that even the most specialized cell can be reprogrammed as the basis for a new cloned animal.
Now Eggan plans to create human embryos from cells donated by people with Parkinson's. Stem cells gleaned from those embryos will help him reveal the cellular mechanisms of the disease. Some religious groups oppose the research because extracting the stem cells kills a five-day-old embryo, an act they equate with taking a life. But Eggan is confident that political opposition to his work will subside as people better understand the benefits. There is no moral consensus on when life begins, he observes, "but there is a moral, religious and philosophical consensus around the world to help sick people."
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