Britain considers licensing human cloning

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Britain is to become the first country in the world to consider licensing experiments in human cloning. Despite President Bill Clinton's call for a five-year ban on the research in the US, the move was welcomed yesterday by senior doctors, scientists and ethical experts in Britain, says Jeremy Laurance, Health Editor.

An official report to be published by the Human Genetics Advisory Commission in the next few weeks will set out the potential benefits and dangers of human cloning and seek views on whether research on the technique should be allowed to go ahead.

The consultation document, believed to be the first of its kind published anywhere, will distinguish different types of cloning and will seek the views of a wide range of organisations including Relate, the relationship counsellors, as well as scientific, religious and ethical experts. If there were sufficient support, ministers could give the go-ahead for the first experiments to begin next year.

Yesterday senior doctors supported the move and dismissed President Clinton's call for a ban on research as a knee-jerk response. Professor Lord Winston, the fertility pioneer, said there could be advantages in allowing research on human cloning and even in allowing the cloning of full human beings.

Lord Winston, consultant gynaecologist and director of the fertility clinic at the Hammersmith hospital, said: "Cloning human tissue could provide transplant material and assist research on ageing, cancer or any aspect of cell cycling." Asked if there could be benefits in cloning individual human beings, he said: "I don't know but I think probably yes. At the moment that is not something society wishes to see. Science needs to be driven by the needs of society. But the knee-jerk reaction that says we should ban research on human cloning is nonsense."

The consultation document, disclosed in the Independent on Sunday, is entitled Human cloning: what would be the implications? and has been drawn up over six months by a joint committee of the commission and the Human Fertilisation and Embryology Authority (HFEA). The commission was set up last year to advise the Government on developments in genetics and is expected to report to ministers on the outcome of the consultation by the summer. Sir Colin Campbell, chairman of the commission, said it was essential the questions were posed before the science became a reality rather than after.

"I would be astonished if there were an upsurge in demand for cloning full human beings, but research to tackle disease may be supported. We shall see."

The disclosure follows the international outcry last week over the announcement by the US physicist Richard Seed of his plans to set up the world's first human cloning clinic in Chicago. Dr Seed was dismissed as an eccentric with no hope of realising his ambition but President Clinton urged Congress to impose a five-year ban on research on cloning.

Life, the anti-abortion organisation, warned yesterday that unacceptable forms of cloning could be "smuggled in" under the guise of research.

The World Medical Association, representing medical organisations in more than 60 countries, has called on doctors to boycott research until controls are in place.