Britain granted its first license for human cloning Wednesday, joining South Korea on the leading edge of stem cell research, which is restricted by the Bush administration and which many scientists believe may lead to new treatments for a range of diseases.
The British license went to Newcastle University researchers who hope eventually to create insulin-producing cells that could be transplanted into diabetics.
South Korean scientists announced in February they had cloned an embryo and extracted the stem cells from it.
Many scientists believe stem cells hold vast promise for treating an array of diseases from diabetes to Parkinson’s. Stem cells can potentially grow into any type of human tissue and scientists hope to be able to direct the blank cells to grow into specific cell types needed for transplant.
Stem cells can be found in adults, but scientists believe they may not be as versatile as those found in embryos. They envision using cloning to create an embryo from a patient so that stem cells extracted would be a perfect transplant match.
“Therapeutic cloning will in the immediate future be a vital tool in harnessing the power of stem cells to treat some of the major diseases which threaten humankind,” John Harris, professor of bioethics at the University of Manchester, said after the license was announced. “This decision is a signal of our society’s compassion and concern for those threatened by disease.”
Britain’s ProLife Party lamented the decision and said it was considering whether it could sue.
Regulations vary around the world
Regulations on cloning and stem cell research vary around the world. Britain is the only European country that licenses cloning for stem cell research and three years ago was the first in the world to do so when Parliament voted to allow regulators to license the method for stem cell research.
South Korea followed in December. Countries such as Sweden and Japan are expected to pass similar legislation soon.
This year, the United Nations will revisit the issue of whether to propose an international treaty to ban “therapeutic” cloning — which produces stem cells from cloned embryos — as well as “reproductive” cloning, which makes babies.
In the United States, where much of the pioneering work on stem cells took place, the issue is embroiled in political controversy.
The Bush administration forbids federal funding for research on embryonic stem cell lines created after Aug. 9, 2001. It also forbids federal funding of all cloning research.
Many stem cell scientists say the policy severely restricts research that could benefit millions of patients. They complain that a lack of money and a charged political climate have brought the field to a virtual standstill in the United States.
The rules do not apply to privately funded labs, but scientists working in such companies say money for the research has dried up since the controversy arose.
Several states in the United States prohibit any kind of embryo cloning, but a proposed federal ban is stuck on Capitol Hill.
Such work has run into fierce opposition from abortion foes and other biological conservatives who are appalled that researchers must destroy human embryos to harvest the stem cells.
The death in June of former President Reagan, who was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s disease in 1994, intensified the spotlight on the issue. Former first lady Nancy Reagan and 58 senators asked President Bush to relax the stem cell funding restrictions, but he refused.
Sen. John Kerry, Bush’s Democratic rival in the November presidential election, has said that if elected he’d overturn those funding restrictions.
First such license in Europe
British scientists said on Wednesday they had received permission to clone human embryos for medical research, thought to be the first such license given in Europe.
Researchers at Newcastle University in northern England will be allowed to create embryos as a source of stem cells to cure diseases, a spokeswoman for the university said.
The go-ahead was given by Britain’s reproduction regulator, the Human Fertilization and Embryology Authority (HFEA), the university said.
“It has taken a year of work, and I am most pleased that the HFEA has recognized the potential of this technology in modern medicine,” Newcastle University’s Dr Miodrag Stojkovic said in a statement.
The scientists said they plan to duplicate early-stage embryos and extract stem cells from them with the aim of developing new treatments for degenerative diseases such as Alzheimer’s, Parkinson’s and diabetes.
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.
Cloning to create copies of human babies is outlawed in Britain but therapeutic cloning is legal.