Andrew Milligan  /  AP
Professor Ian Wilmut plans to clone human embryos for research that may one day help find a cure for motor neuron disease.
updated 7/6/2005 1:22:53 PM ET 2005-07-06T17:22:53

The British government on Tuesday gave the creator of Dolly the Sheep a license to clone human embryos for medical research.

Ian Wilmut, who led the team that created Dolly at Scotland’s Roslin Institute in 1996, and motor neuron expert Christopher Shaw of the Institute of Psychiatry in London, plan to clone embryos to study how nerve cells go awry to cause motor neuron disease. The experiments do not involve creating cloned babies.

It is the second such license approved since Britain became the first country to legalize research cloning in 2001. The first was granted in August to a team that hopes to use cloning to create insulin-producing cells that could be transplanted into diabetics.

While the latest project would not use the stem cells to correct the disease, the study of the cells is expected to help scientists develop future treatments, according to the Human Fertilization and Embryology Authority, which regulates such research and approved the license.

Stem cells are the master cells of the body. They appear when embryos are just a few days old and go on to develop into every type of cell and tissue in the body. Scientists hope to be able to extract the stem cells from embryos when they are in their blank state and direct them to form any desired cell type to treat a variety of diseases, ranging from Parkinson’s to diabetes.

Dangerous, unnecessary?
Getting the cells from an embryo that is cloned from a sick patient could allow scientists to track how diseases develop and provide genetically matched cell transplants that do not cause the immune systems to reject the transplant.

Such work, called therapeutic cloning because it does not result in a baby, is opposed by abortion foes and other biological conservatives because researchers must destroy human embryos to harvest the cells.

Cloning opponents decried the license Tuesday, saying the technique is dangerous, undesirable and unnecessary.

“What a sad and extraordinary volte face for the pioneer of animal cloning,” said the London-based group Comment on Reproductive Ethics. “Wilmut has always been the loudest voice in recent years warning of the dangers of mammalian cloning. And we remember how in the years following the birth of Dolly the sheep, he assured the world he would never go near human cloning.”

Wilmut has repeatedly condemned the idea of human cloning to create babies, but not so-called therapeutic cloning.

Wilmut and Shaw plan to clone cells from patients with the incurable muscle-wasting disease, derive blank-slate stem cells from the cloned embryo, make them develop into nerve cells and compare their development with nerve cells derived from healthy embryos.

The mechanism behind motor neuron disease is poorly understood because the nerves are inaccessible in the brain and central nervous system and cannot be removed from patients.

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