Nearly seven years ago Utah State University veterinary researcher Dr. Ken White worked with the team that cloned the world’s first mules, Idaho Gem and two others. Recognized as an expert on cattle cloning, White today is calling on that background to see if cattle cloning can help determine why a human mother’s immune system will sometimes interpret an embryo as foreign tissue, and reject it. The National Institute of Child Health and Human Development gave White a $1.1 million grant to further study this animal model. He and Dr. Chris Davies are a year into the four-year grant. “Right now we’re studying immune rejection between the mom and the fetus,” said White. “We’ve taken a large number of the cell lines we use to produce the embryos and taken blood samples from a large number of animals that would be the moms, or recipient animals. Then we go in and ‘type’ them as far as their compatibility. “Essentially we have to go in and look at them as if they were going to receive a kidney or liver transplant and try and make sure the donor embryos will match the recipient animal’s makeup so they will not stimulate an immune response.” White said most cloned cattle are spontaneously aborted between 30 and 90 days of pregnancy due to activation of the surrogate mother’s immune system. White and Davies are using cloned cattle to understand why the immune response causes cloned pregnancies to fail. They hope to apply that knowledge to understand similar human pregnancy complications. White said he has been busy the last seven years since the attention of the scientific world was turned to USU’s collaboration with the University of Idaho to become the first of several teams worldwide to clone a member of the horse family. “We continue to look at the different aspects of cloning,” he said, “and how the cloning process works as far as changing gene expression. We’ve tried to use it to apply in very specific ways to animal agriculture.” White admits the work that resulted in Idaho Gem in 2003 was a very difficult project. “As many people may be aware, mules don’t reproduce,” said White. “They are an example of a hybrid animal where donkeys are crossed with horses. Plus, they have 63 chromosomes, which is an odd number.” White said animal cloning has opened the door to allow us to study how genes are turned on and turned off and how that regulatory process occurs. “Obviously this has direct implications for things like stem cells, which everybody has heard a lot about. At the end of the day the goal would be to learn enough about how those genes are regulated such that we could potentially produce those embryonic stem cells without having to use embryos or any other reproductive materials.”
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