Dolly the Sheep’s Link to Stem Cell Therapy


Do you remember Dolly the sheep? The now famous mammal has the distinction of being the first animal created through cloning. Though Dolly only lived a short six-and-a-half years, her legacy is linked to modern stem cell research as it relates to treating osteoarthritis. What researchers have discovered after looking at Dolly’s bones affirm the use of stem cell therapies for osteoarthritis relief.

Scientists at the University of Edinburgh used three separate mothers and a cloned embryo to bring Dolly to life in 1996. To accomplish this, they utilized a process known as somatic cell nuclear transfer. The process involved transferring the cell nucleus of an adult cell into a developing egg cell whose original nucleus had been removed. The modified cell was then implanted into a carrier and allowed to develop as a normal, healthy offspring.

Dolly’s birth was the biggest news of the day on July 5, 1996. If nothing else, it proved that cloning cells of adult mammals was theoretically possible. Did researchers know back then that their work would play a pivotal role in regenerative medicine more than two decades later? Maybe; maybe not. Regardless, their work is having a significant impact on modern research.

  • No Early Onset Osteoarthritis

Dolly only lived a brief time before being put to sleep out of concern that some of the signs of age-related disease she was exhibiting were the direct result of her being cloned from an adult cell. In order to shed more light on those concerns, researchers in Scotland recently took a look at Dolly’s bones to see if she exhibited signs of early-onset osteoarthritis. A positive finding would confirm the concerns.

Using x-rays that were independently scored by numerous orthopedic veterinarians, researchers were able to determine Dolly did not suffer from early-onset osteoarthritis. Her bones did show some signs of the disease, but nothing out of the ordinary for a sheep her age. The researchers said that naturally conceived sheep of the same age would be expected to show the same signs.

More importantly, a separate study published in 2016 looked at 13 additional cloned sheep for signs of osteoarthritis. Four of the sheep were Dolly clones. All 13 were found to be largely free of serious degenerative joint disease. Those that exhibited mild to moderate joint disease were typical of naturally conceived sheep of the same age.

Why is this important? Because other researchers are looking at the possibility of cloning human stem cells to treat osteoarthritis. The idea is to extract stem cells from adult patients, clone them, and then use the cells to treat the same person from whom they were extracted.

  • Potential Benefit of Cloning

Current stem cell treatments for osteoarthritis, including those taught by Utah-based Apex Biologix, involve extracting stem cells from a patient, processing them in a centrifuge, and then injecting them into the treatment site in order to encourage natural healing. The process works effectively enough for many patients. The idea behind cloning is to make that process even more productive.

If patient stem cells can be cloned in the lab, a higher concentration of cells could be injected into the treatment site. In theory, the higher concentration would result in more productive differentiation alongside faster and more thorough tissue regeneration. It is akin to turbo-charging an engine.

We are probably still quite a few years away from using cloned stem cells to treat osteoarthritis on a large scale. But recent research into how Dolly the sheep aged in her short life is providing valuable information researchers need to move forward.