British scientists said on Wednesday (August 11) they had received permission to clone human embryos for medical research, in what they believe
to be the first such licence to be granted in Europe. The licence has been granted to scientists from Newcastle University, working at the city's 'Centre for Life'.
The decision is likely to reignite an ethical debate on human therapeutic cloning as opponents fear it could be used to clone babies, which
is outlawed in Britain. In a procedure based on the same technique that created Dolly, the first cloned sheep, the scientists will create embryos as a source of stem cells to help develop new treatments for diabetes and degenerative diseases such as Alzheimer's and Parkinson's.
They will duplicate early-stage embryos and extract stem cells from them. The embryos will be destroyed before they are 14 days old and will never be allowed to develop beyond a cluster of cells the size of a pinhead.
Dr Miodrag Stojkovic, a member of the team at Newcastle University in northern England, said the research could benefit millions of patients. He said that to his knowledge, it was the first time such a licence had been granted in Europe.
Earlier this year, scientists in South Korea announced that they had produced the first human cloned embryos. Stojkovic said it would be at least five years before patients could receive stem cell treatment based on their work. Stem cells are master cells of the body that can develop into other cell types.
The cloning technique involves removing the nucleus of a human egg cell and replacing it with the nucleus from a human body cell, such as a skin cell. Britain legalised therapeutic cloning in 2001, under licence from its reproductive regulator, the Human Fertilisation and Embryology Authority (HFEA).
It is backed by medical charities but pro-life groups are opposed to the technique, arguing that it creates human life with the purpose of destroying it once the research is completed.
"Nobody on the pro-life side is opposed to research into hopefully finding a cure for debilitating diseases such as diabetes. What in fact we do oppose, however, is the creation of a new, tiny, human individual for the purposes of that individual's own destruction for science which is extremely dubious and highly unethical as well," said Patrick Cusworth of the anti-cloning group, LIFE. Scientists welcomed the decision, saying it was a major step in allowing medical researchers to understand and cure diseases.