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Thursday, 6 April, 2000, 09:48 GMT 10:48 UK
Experts back embryo research
An influential scientific think tank has recommended that the UK Government give the go ahead to limited research into human cloning techniques to grow tissue for transplantation.
But while the Nuffield Council on Bioethics says that the use of embryo "stem cells" to develop medical treatments is acceptable, it insists cloned babies should not be allowed.
The council has rejected claims by a prominent pro-life peer that its advice is flawed because the body is packed with experts who are biased towards such research.
But its conclusions are bound to create an ethical storm.
The government's own advisory body is due to present its verdict on so-called therapeutic cloning in the next few weeks. If it reaches similar conclusions to the Nuffield Council on Bioethics, there will be pressure on politicians to change the law to allow the practice.
The purpose of therapeutic cloning is to create only early-stage embryos from which stem cells could be harvested. Stem cells are the "master" cells in the body which have the potential to develop into any kind of tissue - bone, blood, nerve, muscle, etc.
Scientists hope that if they can learn how to direct stem cell development, they will be able to grow up large volumes of transplant tissue in the lab. One day, it may even be possible to grow up whole organs. This would have a dramatic impact on current techniques that are hampered by donor shortages.
It is technically possible to obtain human embryonic stem cells from aborted foetuses and frozen IVF embryos. But scientists are keen to develop the cloning aspects of the technology because this would yield perfect match tissue that would not be rejected by the patient.
This would be done by taking DNA from the patient and fusing it with an empty egg cell.
Parkinson's disease, stroke and rheumatoid arthritis are just a few conditions which researchers claim might receive a boost from stem cell research.
However, ethics campaigners say that creating an embryo simply for experimental purposes is wrong.
But the Nuffield Council on Bioethics, an independent body that looks at the ethical issues raised by medical advances, reported that the potential medical benefits meant that stem cell research should be licensed.
Dr Sandy Thomas, its director, said: "The scope of stem cell research promises major advances in healthcare.
"Cells and tissues could be developed and used for drug testing, and new therapies could become available for people suffering from burns and spinal injury, as well as for diseases such as leukaemia and multiple sclerosis."
The Parkinson's Disease Society is delighted by the report.
A spokesman said: "Parkinson's can have a devastating impact upon someone's life. Therapeutic cloning techniques may provide an effective treatment for Parkinson's in the future."
However, some groups are strongly opposed to the idea of taking stem cells from human embryos.
A spokesman for the Comment on Reproductive Ethics said: "Vague mention of respect for the embryo is the ultimate hypocrisy - embryos are destroyed by therapeutic cloning."
She added that science had now made possible the harvest of stem cells from adults - rendering the cloning of embryos unnecessary.
Peter Garrett, of Life, told the BBC: "This is effectively a recommendation for therapeutic cloning and that is a form of technological cannibilism.
"These tiny embryonic copies of an individual sick patient are to be plundered for their valuable embryonic stem cells then jettisoned once the parts required for the treatment of the patient have been removed.
"That is clearly violating the traditional ethical principles that we should not use others as a means to an end."
The council has also been hit by the accusation, from Lord Alton, a prominent pro-life campaigner, that committees evaluating the ethics of embryo research were unbalanced.
"Scientists who may be commercially as well as academically involved in genetic research, tame philosophers and token 'religious' pundits, who all think the same way, occasional media names and even members of the Eugenics Society hardly constitute balance," he wrote in a letter to the Daily Telegraph.
Dr Thomas denied this. "I am not aware of any evidence to support this statement. The committee comes to these things with an open mind."
And a Department of Health spokesman said that ministers had confidence that their advisory committee was free of bias.
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