Steve Connor: One day, cloning may be accepted by society

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The Independent Online

Anyone interested in the fierce debate over the use of animal-human hybrid embryos in scientific research should take a look at a government report published in 2000 by the Chief Medical Officer's expert group on stem cells. It states that the CMO, Sir Liam Donaldson, and his experts "concluded that the use of eggs from a non-human species to carry a human cell nucleus was not a realistic or desirable solution to the possible lack of human eggs for research or subsequent treatment".

I predict that the same sort of reaction will greet our report today about the possible use of a new cloning technique to treat infertile couples. Many scientists will dismiss the suggestion from Robert Lanza of Advanced Cell Technology that the technique could soon be used as an IVF technique, but one wonders for how long they will object?

Many members of Sir Liam's expert group now actively support the creation of human-animal embryos for stem cell research. One of those experts, the Nobel laureate Sir Martin Evans, told MPs last week that new scientific breakthroughs are often met with strong objections before they become acceptable.

Strong objections to the prospect of animal-human embryos were the order of the day eight years ago, even from the likes of Sir Liam and his experts, who included Lord May, the Government's former chief scientific adviser. Now, it seems, many – if not all – have changed their minds. Sir Liam said in a statement that the science around embryo research has "advanced significantly" since his report was published.

In another few years, the science of induced pluripotent stem (iPS) cells will no doubt advance considerably too. It may prove to be a reliable and safe method of producing embryonic stem cells from a patient's skin, which can then be used to produce the specialised tissue he or she needs for transplant medicine.

But equally, the experiments conducted on mice show that the technique could be used for reproductive medicine.

Technically, such children would be chimeras – a genetic mix of two or more people – and would have three biological parents. Another approach on mice, using a special kind of defective embryo, could produce full clones, although this is unlikely to be ethically acceptable on grounds of safety.

However, if further studies on animals show that the three-parent approach is as safe as possible, there may be justification for using it to help infertile couples.

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