Ministers responded with caution to recommendations that research be allowed to go ahead, in apparent deference to public concern over genetically modified foods and BSE. Rejecting advice from two expert bodies that cloning for therapeutic research should be permitted, Tessa Jowell, the Health minister and Lord Sainsbury, the Science minister, said more evidence was required of the potential benefits and risks of cloning before a decision could be made.
However, scientists who have hailed the development of cloning as offering huge potential for treating disease were disappointed.
Experts hope to use the technique to grow tissue in the laboratory for transplant surgery, overcoming the problems of rejection and the worldwide shortage of donor organs. It was that prospect that led the Human Fertilisation and Embryology Authority and the Human Genetics Advisory Commission to recommend that research be allowed in a report last December.
The pressure group Match (Movement Against The Cloning of Humans), welcomed the announcement but said it would stay vigilant.
Operations manager Mark Nicholls said: "We're obviously delighted, although a little surprised. We feel this is one battle won but the war is certainly not over."
Critics said the decision was driven by public anxiety rather than a rational assessment of the science.
Professor David Latchman, vice-chairman of the Parkinson's Disease Society's medical advisory panel, accused the Government of being over-cautious and driven by newspaper headlines.
He said: "There is a paradox in this announcement. The Government says we need to see if this therapeutic research is likely to be valuable, but it's going to be quite hard to find that out without carrying out the research."
The head of the Roslin Institute's commercial spin-off company - where Dolly the sheep was cloned - said Britain could now be left behind in the race to exploit the research.
Simon Best, managing director of Geron Bio-Med, a biotechnolgy company, said: "We're quite disappointed that the Government is not willing to endorse the recommendation to allow cloning for stem cell research. This work has the potential to provide completely new treatments for a wide range of diseases for which no remedy exists at present.
"Research groups in this country will be stuck, and there is a real risk that Britain is going to be left behind. This is not just about replacing existing treatments. It's a whole new market which could benefit the economy, and an area in which we are very smart at the moment."
Professor Liam Donaldson, the Government's chief medical officer, is to chair an expert group which will conduct a further review of existing research in the area and report to ministers early next year.
Professor Donaldson said there was widespread public concern about the techniques. Many people did not distinguish therapeutic cloning to produce new treatments from reproductive cloning to produce human beings, which the government reaffirmed yesterday was unethical and would remain banned.
"We want to have an objective look at the risks and benefits [of therapeutic cloning] and we want to take the public along with us," he said.
Research into therapeutic cloning would involve growing an embryo for no more than a few days and then removing the stem cells which have the potential to develop into any kind of tissue such as skin, muscle or brain cells.
The stem cells would be stimulated to grow tissue that might be used for transplants or other treatments.Reuse content