SCIENTISTS HAVE devised a way of providing every child with its own "body repair kit" by using cloning as a way of generating unlimited supplies of human tissue for transplant surgery.
They believe their plans to create the world's first human clones could revolutionise the treatment of incurable diseases.
Researchers from Britain, who are working with American scientists, have informed Government advisers of their plans, which envisage the day when every new-born baby will have its own supply of cloned cells frozen in a national tissue bank for transplant operations in later life.
The team, which includes the scientists who cloned Dolly the sheep, is working on combining those techniques with research on embryonic cells which can develop into blood, bone, muscle and even brain cells. This would enable perfect tissue matches without the risk of rejection which occurs with conventional transplants.
They emphasise that their submission stops short of creating a cloned embryo which develops much beyond a week old, thereby circumventing ethical concerns about the creation of a cloned adult.
The proposals are nevertheless likely to generate a wave of disapproval from groups that are concerned about the rights of unborn children and other ethicists who believe that no form of human cloning should ever be allowed.
The Roslin Institute in Edinburgh, where Dolly was created from the cell of an adult sheep, confirmed this weekend that it is in active negotiations with scientists who have pioneered the use of embryonic cells for transplant operations.
"We are in confidential discussions with prospective partners but are not yet ready to make a public announcement," said Harry Griffin, the Roslin Institute's assistant director of science.
It is understood, however, that one of the potential partners is the team from the University of Wisconsin-Madison which last week announced that it had identified the embryonic "stem cells" capable of developing into any one of the dozens of different tissues of the body.
The advantage of combining the Dolly cloning technology with the stem cell research is that unlimited supplies of tissue could be generated from the transplant patient who would not need to take drugs to prevent organ rejection.
Ian Wilmut, who led the Dolly research at the Roslin, is also collaborating with Austin Smith, director of the Centre for Genome Research at Edinburgh University, who is the leading exponent of Britain's research effort into human embryonic stem cells.
Dr Smith said that he has submitted an outline of the collaborative proposals to the Human Fertilisation and Embryology Authority (HFEA), Britain's statutory watchdog on embryo research which is in consultation on the future of human cloning.
"It's an area that the Roslin Institute is very enthusiastic about and we'd like to work together on this. We can't do it at the moment because in the UK it is illegal, but this research may help to persuade people of the potential benefits," Dr Smith said.
Generating embryonic clones by fusing the cell nucleus of a person with an unfertilised human egg which has had its own nucleus removed promises to allow scientists to extract embryonic stem cells that will be a perfect tissue match of the person in question, Dr Austin said.
"You'll be able to take tissue samples from babies when they are born and derive stem cells by nuclear transfer in order to freeze them down so that everybody will have their own embryonic stem cells," he said.
"That's not what we can do today, but at the research level that's what we're thinking. I think it would be possible in a couple of years."
In his submission to the HFEA, Dr Smith calls for an extension of the regulations covering human embryo research so that "therapeutic cloning" is permitted. He still voices his opposition to "reproductive cloning" which would result in a fully mature adult clone.
"For isolation of embryonic stem cells, embryos are only required to develop to the blastocyst stage, which falls well within the 14-day limit of current legislation," he says in the submission.
A spokesman for the HFEA said that the suggestions of Dr Smith and the Roslin scientists are being "actively considered" by the authority.
"It's on the agenda. We haven't received an application but clearly the concept has been made to us. We're discussing it in a general context," said the spokesman.
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