British experts set to lead world revolution in medical science

Embryo research watchdog poised to give two teams the go-ahead for ground-breaking stem-cell research
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Britain's official watchdog on embryo research is expected to give the go-ahead today for two teams of scientists to treat incurable diseases using stem cells derived from test-tube human embryos.

They will become the first scientists in the world to receive a government's endorsement for pursuing experiments that could lead to a revolution in medical science, as well as producing the first cloned human embryos.

The Human Fertilisation and Embryology Authority (HFEA) met yesterday to consider the two research applications under a new law, passed last year, which allows the use of embryonic stem cells for therapeutic purposes. The authority will inform the scientists today of its decisions, which are expected to be in favour.

Both teams want licences to extract the stem cells from test-tube embryos created by fertilising an egg with a sperm, but they might in the future want to extend this to include cloned human embryos.

A spokesman for the HFEA yesterday refused to name the research institutes which have applied for the licences but The Independent has learnt that they are the Universities of Edinburgh and Newcastle.

Austin Smith, of Edinburgh's Centre for Genome Research, and Professor John Burn, of Newcastle's medical genetics department, are keen advocates of embryonic stem-cell research, which promises to revolutionise the treatment of many of the most serious and incurable diseases.

Dr Smith said that embryonic stem cells could be used to treat a variety of potentially fatal illnesses, ranging from Parkinson's to chronic heart disease and cancer. He has confirmed that a licence application has been made.

Professor Burn said that Newcastle had also made a licence application because the city's new Centre for Life was "perfectly placed" to carry out the difficult techniques of extracting and growing stems cells from six-day-old human embryos, which are too small to be seen with the naked eye. He said: "There are only a handful of places in Britain with the potential for extracting stem cells from blastocysts [embryos] and we're one of them."

The HFEA met to discuss the two applications on the same day the House of Lords Select Committee on Stem Cell Research gave backing to the Government's new laws allowing the use of human embryos for therapeutic purposes while banning attempts at cloning a human baby. When peers passed the new law last year it was on the understanding that experiments would not start until the Lords committee had examined the ethical issues.

Richard Harries, the Bishop of Oxford, who chaired the committee, said that although the use of stem cells from early human embryos raised difficult moral and scientific issues, the potential benefits outweighed drawbacks. He dismissed suggestions that stem cells derived from adults were a viable alternative to embryonic stem cells – a view fostered by anti-abortion groups opposed to the whole idea of embryo research.

A spokeswoman for Comment on Reproductive Ethics, which opposes such experiments, said the select committee's report was rigged. "There has never been a proper presentation of the superiority of adult stem cells. This bias could not have been more blatant than in the calling of verbal evidence to the select committee," she claimed.

The select committee also supported the Government's attempts to set up an national stem cell bank, which are being co-ordinated by the Medical Research Council. The bank will act as a central repository of any stem cells extracted by scientists with HFEA licences.

Sir George Radda, the MRC's chief executive, said that the frozen-cell bank would be housed in an national research institute which must not be run by a commercial company, an MRC institute nor a university with a vested interest in stem-cell research. The bank would hold deposits of both adult stem cells and embryonic stem cells. "Once stem cells have been generated, they can be maintained and multiplied almost indefinitely," Sir George said.

With the issuing of the first licences to use embryonic stem cells for therapeutic treatment, Britain leads the world in the regulation of this controversial area of research.

In America, such research is banned in federally funded laboratories, and subject to rules on commercial confidentiality within private institutes. Many other European countries have shied away from formally allowing the research to proceed under the specific legislation now adopted in Britain.

Mike Dexter, director of the Wellcome Trust, the biggest medical research charity in the world, said that UK legislation was already setting a precedent for the rest of the world to follow. "Scientists can now get on with finding treatments for life-threatening diseases," said Dr Dexter, who has spent much of his career investigating adult stem cells.

Stem cells taken from early embryos are known to have the potential to develop into any one of the many scores of specialised tissue cells of the body. It is hoped that instead of replacing diseased organs or treating them with drugs, it will be possible in future to repair them with stem cells. However, for the treatment to be even more effective it will be necessary to generate cloned embryos from a skin cell of a patient so that the stem cells do not suffer tissue rejection.

The law in Britain allows the creation of cloned embryos using the "cell nuclear replacement" technique that was used to create Dolly the sheep but so far the HFEA has not received any applications from scientists who propose to do this. Professor Burn, however, said his group may be close to seeking formal permission for cell nuclear replacement, which is also known as therapeutic cloning.

"We would certainly consider it at a research level. It has to be done because the therapeutic potential is enormous. It looks potentially far more successful than gene therapy," Professor Burn said.

Already experiments on rats have shown that embryonic stem cells can repair damaged spinal cords, raising the possibility of allowing paralysis victims to walk again.