Ruth Deech, chairman of the HFEA, said she thought the best move would be to retain "flexibility" in the law, so that the Secretary of State for Health could make an exception to allow cloning of human cells. An HFEA representative pointed out that such techniques could, in future, be useful for treating cancer or certain genetic defects.
Meanwhile, yesterday scientists at PPL, the company which with the Roslin Institute last month stunned the world by announcing the existence of Dolly - cloned from an adult sheep - said that in the next nine months they hope both to clone an adult cow and to create a genetically-manipulated cloned sheep.
Dr Alan Colman, PPL's research director, said the company also has a herd of cows in Blacksburg, Virginia in the United States and is attempting to clone them. "It is still early days. There are no live-born Dollys in the cow area," he said. But he hopes for a cow clone "quite late this year". PPL is also working on sheep that can produce human Factor IX, a blood-clotting product used to treat haemophiliacs. Cattle clones would be used to produce enhanced milk.
Mrs Deech told MPs on the cross-party Science and Technology Select Committee that she is urgently seeking the advice of lawyers on whether the law needs to be changed in order to bring any human cloning experiments which might use the same techniques as created Dolly under its remit.
Animal embryo experimentation is licensed by the Home Office. But the HFEA licenses any work with human embryos. The most important question the authority faces is the legal definition of an "embryo". The HFE Act, passed in 1990, legislates the use of human embryos - but Dolly was created by putting the nucleus of an adult sheep cell into the empty egg cell. No embryo, in the form of a fusion of a sperm and egg, was created.
However, Mrs Deech warned that the most important aspect of legislating on the use of cloning would be to get international agreement on what forms, if any, of the technology should be allowed.
Noting that the law on cloning varies enormously across Europe and the rest of the world, she said: "You can imagine a situation where there's a baby which needs some treatment that is only available through cloning technology. The media would coo and there would be pressure to send the child somewhere where there are no controls on the technology.
But other countries, and now religions, are expressing strong anti-cloning views. Juergen Ruettgers, the German Research Minister, called for a world- wide ban on cloning humans, and denounced pro-cloning arguments used by some scientists as resembling the Nazis' way of thinking. He hoped a similar world-wide ban on human embryo research could be adopted by the United Nations Education Scientific and Cultural Organisation (Unesco).Reuse content