Scientist says pioneering human cloning experiment is vital for future of medicine

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The scientist planning Britain's first human embryo cloning experiment has insisted it must be allowed for the sake of "the future of modern medicine".

The scientist planning Britain's first human embryo cloning experiment has insisted it must be allowed for the sake of "the future of modern medicine".

Five members of the Human Fertilisation and Embryology Authority (HFEA) yesterday considered the country's first application for a licence to clone human embryos from adult stem cells.

If granted, the licence would allow a team led by Dr Miodrag Stojkovic from the Institute of Human Genetics at Newcastle University to grow specially-created embryos, using eggs donated by couples undergoing fertility treatment and skin cells from adults. It would produce stem cells that would be used to make insulin-producing cells for a new class of treatment for diabetes.

Dr Stojkovic said: "I will be very disappointed if our application is turned down because I believe this research holds out great promise for the future of modern medicine. I see no scientific reason why we should not progress with our work. I completely understand the ethical objections, but we are using eggs that are surplus to IVF treatment, which failed to be fertilised. Instead of being thrown away they have been donated for research. The way I think of it is, why put something in the rubbish bin when it can be used in such a valuable way?"

Stem cells are "master cells" that can become many different parts of the body. Those taken from embryos can be turned into any kind of replacement tissue, including bone, muscle, nerves and organs.

The key step would derive the stem cells from embryos that are clones of the patient being treated - meaning the new tissue will not be rejected. The stem cells are collected from embryos which are destroyed before they are 14 days old and never allowed to develop beyond a cluster of cells the size of a pinhead.

If it works, the technology holds the potential to grow new organs or even limbs, although such treatments would be decades away. But opponents say the procedure creates lives in order to kill them, and would improve technology to enable the cloning of babies.

As the HFEA pondered the question at its London offices, the debate raged outside.

Cloning to create duplicate human babies is outlawed in Britain but therapeutic cloning for medical research has been legal since 2002. However, no licences have yet been awarded by the HFEA, which oversees all embryo research.

But opponents said that improving the technology so that it could be used to treat disease would also allow its abuse by "maverick scientists".

Dr Donald Bruce, leader of the Church of Scotland's Society, Religion and Technology project, added that the proposed work was "too speculative for such an ethically sensitive area".

He quoted a 2001 House of Lords Select Committee report which concluded that the HFEA would need a quite exceptional reason to allow research involving cloned embryos.

"The information so far made public suggests this is not the case," said Dr Bruce. "It is a development of a long term research tool not the plugging of an vital and immediate missing link in medical research."

The application was supported by Britain's most prominent scientific organisation, the Royal Society. "It is clear that the licence can be granted if the research is considered to be necessary and desirable," said Professor Richard Gardner, the chair of the Royal Society working group on cloning and stem cell research.

The work, he said, could "bring closer the prospect of radical new stem cell treatments for a range of human diseases and disorders. There is a broad consensus among the world's scientific community that there should be a worldwide ban on human reproductive cloning, but that each country should make its own decisions about whether to allow therapeutic cloning."

The HFEA said that the five members would consider the legality of the proposed work along with scientists' reports on its value and whether the laboratory was up to the task. However, there is no deadline for the committee to report.

Originally from Yugoslavia, Dr Stojkovic worked on stem cells at the University of Munich, but was frustrated by the blanket ban on all forms of human cloning in Germany.

He also rejected the argument that his work might show others how to attempt reproductive cloning: hundreds of papers already describe the "nuclear transfer" cloning technique pioneered by British scientists to create Dolly the sheep, he noted. And earlier this year researchers in South Korea announced that they had produced the first human cloned embryos.

Dr Stojkovic pointed out that they only succeeded after more than 240 failed attempts, which indicated the difficulties involved in the work.