There is no reason to fear this brave new world of hope

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The Independent Online

Last year, a team of scientists from South Korea made an astonishing announcement. They had become the first research team to clone a human embryo. Yesterday, they announced a further advance: they published a study showing that they had since cloned 31 human embryos from human skin cells and - most significantly - successfully derived stem cells from 11 of these tiny balls of life.

Last year, a team of scientists from South Korea made an astonishing announcement. They had become the first research team to clone a human embryo. Yesterday, they announced a further advance: they published a study showing that they had since cloned 31 human embryos from human skin cells and - most significantly - successfully derived stem cells from 11 of these tiny balls of life.

It would be foolish to argue that cloning and research on embryos raise no ethical concerns. But it is vitally important to understand what is - and what is not - the central purpose of this research so that such anxieties can be placed in context. Its primary purpose is not to produce cloned embryos for their own sake, but to create vital embryonic stem cells, tailor-made from, and for, a patient.

These cells possess the astounding capacity to multiply continuously in the laboratory and - when bathed in the right cocktail of growth stimulants - to develop into any one of the many scores of specialised tissues in the body, such as nerves, cardiac muscle or insulin-producing pancreatic cells. The hope eventually is that it will be possible to produce a "self-repair" kit for people with devastating diseases, such as Parkinson's and diabetes, or even spinal-cord injuries.

If stem cells can be derived from a person's skin, they will be genetically identical to that patient and will not be rejected by that person's immune system if transplanted back. The patient would not need to take the toxic anti-rejection drugs which transplant patients rely on at present. This is the purpose of these cloning experiments - and it is a laudable goal. It has been accepted as such in Britain, where this form of cloning is legal. But it is not legal in many other countries in Europe and elsewhere, where all forms of human cloning are banned.

There are, of course, those who believe that embryos are potential human beings from day one, and that any process that involves destroying them is therefore akin to murder. Such people will never accept that using embryonic stem cells is ethically right. There is, however, a very different ethical argument. How ethical is it to ban the development of a medical technique that could save the lives of thousands and alleviate the suffering of many others? This is the prospect that embryonic stem cells derived from cloned human embryos holds out - and the latest research from South Korea demonstrates that it can be done.

But what about other potential applications of cloning? Does this latest study bring us closer to the horrors of cloned babies who, it is feared, could suffer birth defects and other developmental abnormalities? On one level, it does. The South Koreans have increased the efficiency of the cloning technique tenfold in little over a year. Maverick scientists intent on reproductive cloning could, no doubt, learn from their methodology.

Yet on another level, we are no nearer now to reproductive cloning than we were before this study was published. In Britain at least, reproductive cloning is specifically prohibited - as it should be everywhere. It is this legal sanction that protects society from those who would misuse cloning technology in an attempt to make scientific history.

It is disingenuous of scientists to argue that the latest breakthrough in cloned embryos does not take us closer to the prospect of cloned babies; it does. But our real protection against this Brave New World scenario of human cloning is that we, as a society, have banned it. With that legal safeguard in place, we can afford to applaud and encourage those working to develop stem cell therapies that could offer the first real hope to so many.

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