The technique promises to revolutionise medicine with effective treatments for genetic disorders, incurable illnesses such as Parkinson's disease, and certain forms of cancer, but its use is likely to unleash a wave of protest concerning its ethical implications.
The Human Fertilisation and Embryology Authority, in a joint report with the Human Genetics Advisory Commission, has given its blessing to the creation of cloned human embryos to generate tissue for transplant surgery.
In the face of strong opposition from anti-abortion groups, the Government- appointed experts said that therapeutic cloning - where cells are harvested from a cloned embryo that is not allowed to survive for longer than 14 days after fertilisation - is justified on the grounds of the huge medical benefits the technique could provide. The joint report recommends that the Government should explicitly ban reproductive cloning - where a cloned embryo is implanted into a womb and allowed to develop into a baby - to allay public fears over the creation of cloned adult replicas.
Sir Colin Campbell, chairman of the advisory commission, said: "It is quite clear that human reproductive cloning is unacceptable to a substantial majority of the population. A total ban on its use for any purpose is the obvious and straightforward way of recognising this."
Ruth Deech, chairman of the embryology authority and a law lecturer at Oxford University, emphasised that existing regulations on human embryo research make it illegal to carry out cloning but she said an "explicit ban" by the Government is desirable before it allows therapeutic cloning.
"We are suggesting to the Government that this may be a wise thing to do," she said, "in order that the prohibition is enshrined in law rather than it relying on the decision of a statutory body."
The Department of Health will consider the authority's recommendations to include two extra categories of research to the existing five allowed under present legislation.
This will allow embryos to be cloned to extract the important embryonic "stem cells" that can be grown in the laboratory into any one of the hundreds of different tissue types of the body.
Such a procedure would generate virtually unlimited supplies of tissue for transplanting into a patient, who would not suffer tissue rejection because the transplants would be genetically identical.
Anne McLaren, a distinguished embryologist and member of the authority, said she would not be surprised if an application for human cloning was made in 1999. "I'd have thought within a year," she said yesterday.
Austin Smith, director of the Centre for Genome Research at Edinburgh University, is likely to be the first scientist to apply for approval to be the first to create a cloned embryo for tissue transplants.
Dr Smith, who is collaborating with the scientists from the nearby Roslin Institute who cloned Dolly the sheep, has already submitted an outline of his proposal to the HFEA and is confident he will be given the official go-ahead soon.
Harry Griffin, assistant director of science at the Roslin Institute, welcomed the authority's recommendations: "We particularly welcome the proposal to extend the purposes for which embryo research can be carried out to include the development of new treatment of damaged tissues or organs," he said.
The joint report resulted from a consultation exercise that began last January when people were invited to submit their views on cloning. The experts received about 200 responses, of which about 40 per cent came from members of the public, with the rest coming from academics, religious groups, ethicists, lawyers and industry.
The report says that 80 per cent of those who responded were opposed to reproductive cloning and 23 per cent were against any form of embryo research or manipulation, arguing that the embryo possesses the full moral status of a human being.Reuse content