Six-day-old embryo holds the future of medicine

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The Independent Online

Medicine in the 21st century is about to be transformed, as the result of proposals that will enable scientists to develop a powerful set of weapons in the war against incurable illnesses.

Medicine in the 21st century is about to be transformed, as the result of proposals that will enable scientists to develop a powerful set of weapons in the war against incurable illnesses.

The Government yesterday gave the green light for the recommendations published yesterday, which will allow the limited cloning of human embryos in order to develop personalised body-repair kits.

Ministers have accepted all the suggestions of a committee of experts who want the law on embryo research to be extended to allow so-called therapeutic cloning, when human embryos are created as a source of key tissue-mending cells.

As expected, the Government will allow MPs to take a free vote on whether the proposals will be made legal. Already, church bodies and anti-abortion groups have vowed to oppose the moves.

The Government said that it accepted the recommendations of a report by its chief medical officer, Liam Donaldson, "in full", and would bring forward legislation to implement them as soon as the parliamentary timetable allowed.

Professor Donaldson was charged with chairing the expert committee to review the potential benefits and ethical drawbacks of using "stem cells" from early embryos less than 14 days of age.

These cells are capable of developing into any one of the hundreds of specialised cells of the body. In animal studies, stem cells have been shown to be capable of repairing damaged heart and brain tissue.

Scientists believe that embryonic stem cells promise to revolutionise the treatment of many incurable conditions, from diseases of the bones, kidneys and heart to Parkinson's disease and Alzheimer's.

The Donaldson committee concluded: "Research involving the extraction and use of stem cells raises the prospects of a range of exciting new therapeutic possibilities for repair of diseased or damaged tissues in the future, which could eventually bring major health benefits."

To overcome the problems of tissue rejection, the scientists also want to clone embryos from a patient's own tissue by a process known as cell nuclear replacement, the basic technique used to create Dolly the sheep. Critics argue that this will result in the creation of human embryos which will as used as an expendable resource. They also believe that it marks the beginning of a slippery slope to the cloning of an adult human being, despite so called "reproductive cloning" remaining a criminal offence.

The Conservative health spokesman, Dr Liam Fox, has made it clear that he intends "on principle" to vote against the proposals. "There is genuine and deep-rooted political unease about many of the medical techniques we can now employ," he said.

Lord Winston, a pioneer of in-vitro fertilisation, said, however, that the proposals promised great untold benefits. "There are so many possibilities with this kind of research that it would be rather foolish to ban it at this stage," he said.

Lord Winston predicted that the debate over changing the law would rival the row over the Human Fertilisation and Embryology Act when it came into force in 1990. "We're going to have a fight, I think, but I don't think it's going to be a fight worse than what we had in 1990," he said.

The Royal Society called on MPs to support the proposals. Professor Patrick Bateson, a vice-president of the society, said: "We believe the potential medical benefits of permitting research on human embryonic stem cells are so great that an extension of the 1990 Act is entirely justified."

Martin Casey, director of political development for the Right to Life campaign, exemplified the opposing argument when he criticised the Donaldson report and the Government for "arrogance and irresponsibility". "The whole process, initiated by the Government last summer, has been a charade. In the wake of last summer's [genetically modified] food scares, the Donaldson committee was established as a holding operation until the Government and certain sections of the scientific community had established a better political climate in which to forge ahead."

An alliance of pro-life groups and anti-abortion MPs is expected to try to sabotage the proposals at every opportunity during its passage through parliament. If the legislation is enacted, Britain will be the only country where the law specifically allows therapeutic cloning. There are laws against United States scientists working in private companies to carry out the research.