The leader of the team that created Dolly the sheep says cloning babies could be justified in preventing genetic disease.
In a dramatic reversal of his position three years ago, when he said he could see "no ethical or moral reason" to clone people, Ian Wilmut, a scientist at the Roslin Institute in Scotland, says today that cloning humans "would be desirable under certain circumstances" - for example where a couple wanted to avoid their child inheriting a debilitating gene-based illness.
He also said that so-called "therapeutic" cloning, which would use cells from embryos to treat illnesses, "promises such great benefits that it would be immoral not to do it".
The comments, in an article published today in New Scientist magazine, created a furious row yesterday and reignited the arguments touched off last week when South Korean scientists announced they had successfully cloned a human embryo.
Dr Donald Bruce, director of the Society, Religion and Technology project at the Church of Scotland, said that Dr Wilmut's comments were "ethically very naive" and that the idea of using cloning to avoid genetic illness "makes no sense".
Dr Wilmut suggests that a couple who had tried IVF treatment where the embryos were screened for the genetic disease might opt to produce an embryo whose faulty genes could be replaced with healthy ones. Then a cell from the "fixed" embryo could be made into a clone, which would be implanted into the mother. "The resulting embryo would be an identical twin of the original embryo, but with the diseased gene corrected in every one of its cells." He adds that this child "would be a clone of a new individual, not ... of one of its parents."
But Dr Bruce said: "Why avoid going through a second cycle of IVF just in order to use cloning? It's far simpler, once you've embarked on IVF, to continue with it, checking the genetic component of the embryos you produce before placing them in the womb."
Dr Wilmut said that therapeutic cloning offered such potential benefits that he had applied for a licence from the Government to clone cells from people suffering from muscular dystrophy, to find new treatments and understanding of that and other wasting diseases.
His remarks are the first time a senior scientist with a proven track record in cloning has suggested it could have any benefit. They also mark a reversal from his position stated in a paper in the journal Science in March 2001, entitled "Don't Clone Humans!", when he said that "if human cloning is attempted, those embryos that do not die early may live to become abnormal children and adults; both are troubling outcomes".
The South Korean team produced their cloned embryos to pursue "therapeutic" cloning by extracting and studying "stem cells" - which can be grown into any type of cell in the body.
Dr Wilmut acknowledged that far too little was known about the technology and that safety was a major concern. But he said human cloning would provide patients with tissue-matched stem cells and eliminate any problem of rejection by the body. "Human cloning must not be banned. It could save many thousands of lives," he said.Reuse content