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Cloning: Survey of government advisers and specialists reveals sharp divisions of opinion but most agree technical difficulties can be overcome
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An attempt to clone a human being will be made within the foreseeable future if technical and safety problems can be overcome, say leading scientists interviewed by The Independent.

An attempt to clone a human being will be made within the foreseeable future if technical and safety problems can be overcome, say leading scientists interviewed by The Independent.

A survey of government advisers, medical specialists and reproductive biologists revealed that a majority believe human cloning is probably inevitable.

Most of those who took part accepted that the successful use of cloned embryos in medical research - which will be the subject of a free vote by MPs later this year - would lead to a re-evaluation of the law banning reproductive cloning.

Although most of those who took part said that they would oppose reproductive cloning, a significant minority believed that exceptional circumstances could justify the birth of a cloned baby.

The survey revealed a wide spectrum of views among the 32 specialists, some of whom have advised the Government. At one end were those who would never countenance human cloning; at the other were those who said it was a realistic, justifiable possibility.

More than half thought that if the technical and safety issues associated with reproductive cloning were overcome, then it was certain to be attempted within the next 20 years, although some thought it likely to happen first in another country.

One in five went further and thought that reproductive cloning could be justified on medical grounds, for instance if a couple could not have their own children in any other way.

Kamal Ahuja, the IVF director at the Cromwell Hospital in London, said that the climate of opinion could change. "As people realise that it is a biological entity and not a personality that can be cloned, some of the fears will fade away, probably giving the Government the necessary confidence to draft regulatory guidelines."

Derek Bromhall, an Oxfordbiologist and pioneer of animal cloning, also thought reproductive cloning was inevitable, although not, in his opinion, justified. "The risks are such that no responsible IVF clinic will yet attempt it. But, in time, it will be done, though at first it might be camouflaged as just another method of assisted reproduction and called by some name other than cloning," he said.

Those deeply opposed to reproductive cloning included Anne McLaren, a Cambridge biologist who sits on the Human Fertilisation and Embryology Authority, and Sir Aaron Klug, a Noble laureate and president of the Royal Society. Reproductive cloning would not be tried even if it was technically feasible and safe, at least "not in the UK", Dr McLaren said.

Sir Aaron said the questions raised by the survey implied a "slippery slope" from the limited "therapeutic cloning" envisaged by the Government to the full reproductive cloning of an adult. "It is much too early to raise this issue," he said.

The 32 scientists were strongly in favour of extending the law covering research on human embryos to include the extraction of embryonic stem cells to increase our understanding of human disease.

"No new principle is involved in extending the use of human embryos for stem-cell research and the potential benefits are enormous," said Professor Patrick Bateson, the vice-president of the Royal Society. "I can see no benefit in reproductive cloning that outweighs the ethical problems. Stem-cell research is a very different matter."

However much scientists may try to distance reproductive cloning from stem-cell research, anti-abortion groups are expected to make great play of the "slippery slope" argument over the coming months leading up to the parliamentary debate.

The biggest unknown, however, is whether the technical problems will forever make reproductive cloning purely a theoretical possibility. Alan Colman, a scientist at PPL Therapeutics who was involved in the cloning of Dolly the sheep, believes the technical difficulties can only be overcome by experiments with human eggs.

"These issues will not be addressable since the use of human eggs to check for safety and technical progress is and will remain an unethical application," Dr Colman said.

Austin Smith, an Edinburgh scientist who works on embryonic stem cells, said the technical problems were "considerably more complex than requirements for therapeutic cloning". However, David Skuse, a geneticist at the Institute of Child Health in London, believes such difficulties are surmountable. "Once the technique for human reproductive cloning is technically feasible, it will be done. What are now ethical boundaries will probably prove to be elastic in time."

Additional research: Maria Fritzl and Daisy Price.