Britain's fertility watchdog has, for the first time, given the go-ahead for a team of university scientists to clone human embryos for medical research.

Britain's fertility watchdog has, for the first time, given the go-ahead for a team of university scientists to clone human embryos for medical research.

The decision by the Human Fertilisation and Embryology Authority (HFEA) was widely expected but condemned by anti-abortion groups who are opposed to all embryo research. The licence was also opposed by those who argued that the work could benefit scientific mavericks intent on cloning babies - which is illegal in Britain.

The HFEA licence permits the creation of stem cells from early cloned human embryos which will not develop beyond a few days of age. Professor Alison Murdoch, who leads the team from the University of Newcastle and the Centre for Life, said that ultimately the work would help to develop treatments for a range of diseases, such as Parkinson's, Alzheimer's and diabetes.

"The potential this area of research offers is immensely exciting and we are keen to take the work we've done so far to the next level," Professor Murdoch said. "Since we submitted our application we have had overwhelming support from senior scientists and clinicians from all over the world and many letters from patients who may benefit from the research."

The Newcastle team will take human eggs, remove the cell nucleus and replace it with the nucleus of a skin cell which will contain only the genetic material of the skin-cell donor. After stimulating the egg with a small jolt of electricity, it should begin dividing as if it was fertilised and so develop into an early embryo from which embryonic stem cells - the "mother cells" of the body - can be extracted.

Stem cells from early embryos have the potential to develop into any of the dozens of specialised tissues of the body. They could be used to repair damaged tissues and organs and treat illnesses ranging from chronic heart disease to previously incurable brain disorders.

The licence application initially stipulated that they wanted to generate stem cells from cloned embryos as a potential treatment for diabetes, but this was dropped in order to hasten the approval. The licence, which will have to be renewed in a year, stipulates the cloning attempt will be made using the skin cells of a woman having a gynaecological operation, while the unfertilised eggs will be donated by another woman having fertility treatment. Professor Murdoch said the procedure was similar to the cloning work on animals such as Dolly the sheep. She said it would not in itself benefit scientific mavericks such as the Italian fertility doctor Professor Severino Antinori, who has said he wants to produce cloned babies. "All we are doing is following the scientific techniques that are well described in animal cloning work," she said. "They [the mavericks] can pick that up from the published data already available."

Suzi Leather, the head of the HFEA, said the application was carefully considered in terms of the scientific, ethical, legal and medical implications. In 2001, the law was changed to allow the cloning of human embryos for the treatment of serious diseases, but specifically banned any attempt to produce cloned babies.

But Jack Scarisbrick, national chairman of the anti-abortion group Life, said the licence was a deplorable step down a slippery slope. "Cloning involves the manufacture of a new kind of human being, one generated asexually and without traditional parentage, with the express purpose of destroying it," Professor Scarisbrick said. "This is manipulation, exploitation and trivialisation of human life."

WHY IS CLONING SO CONTROVERSIAL?

What does this licence allow?

The scientists at Newcastle can now legally use unfertilised human eggs and skin cells to create cloned human embryos which must not be allowed to mature beyond 14 days. Stem cells will be taken from the cloned embryos after a few days of development, which will stop these embryos developing any further.

Where will the cells come from?

The eggs will come from women having fertility treatment, who will donate spare eggs. The skin cells will come from a female patient having gynaecological treatment.

Why is this research so important?

Embryonic stems cells can develop into any of the specialised tissues of the adult body, and used to repair damaged tissues in situ, cutting the need for organ transplants. This is a first step towards producing stem cells from a patient's own skin, allowing safer tissue transplants.

So who can oppose such work?

Those such as the Catholic Church who oppose any embryo research say that creating and destroying human embryos is immoral even though the embryos in question can be barely seen without the help of a microscope. Others take the view that the work will benefit only those attempting to clone babies.

Has anyone successfully cloned human embryos?

Only one group of scientists in South Korea has shown it is possible to clone early human embryos. All other claims have not been rigorously peer-reviewed, or have simply been publicity stunts.

Will this bring cloned babies any nearer?

A reliable technique for cloning human embryos will open up the possibility of them being implanted into the womb. However, there are clear signs from animal cloning work that such a procedure would be fraught with health risks to both mothers and babies - and no ethics committee would currently approve such experiments.

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