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The BBC's David Concar
"The seeds of a medical revolution"
 real 28k

Friday, 7 July, 2000, 11:10 GMT 12:10 UK
Embryo cells imported to UK
Human embryo
Gathering the cells destroys the embryos
UK scientists have imported human embryo cells from the US, exposing a loophole in the laws governing their use.

It is currently illegal in Britain to create an embryo and use the cells for research not relating to fertility. The loophole, revealed by the BBC, will increase the pressure on the government to make a clear ruling on the matter.

The "stem" cells are of great interest to scientists because they have the ability to develop into any type of cell in the body, presenting the possibility of "grow-your-own" transplant tissue. Some treatments have already been developed, for example for Parkinson's disease.

The cells can only be harvested by destroying human embryos and anti-abortion campaigners are incensed by the loophole.

Express delivery

The team of scientists from Sheffield University is now working with the controversial embryo cells, after importing them in dry ice from Wisconsin, US. They arrived earlier this year, via Federal Express couriers.

The UK regulator, the Human Fertilisation and Embryology Authority, told the scientists that they would not be breaking the law.

The UK Government has been wrestling with the issue of whether the medical benefits of the research outweighs concerns over the destruction of embryos.

Last year, its scientific advisors recommended that some research should be allowed but the government rejected the advice and asked for an expert report.

That report was finished some time ago but has not been made public.

Government 'hypocritical'

Professor Peter Andrews, from Sheffield University, says the legal loophole he has exploited shows the government to be hypocritical.

"It's rather strange and hypocritical that one could bring in cells to this country, which have been derived from human embryos elsewhere, and that seems to be all right. But you can't derive cells directly from human embryos here in Britain," he told the BBC.

In theory, the human cells could one day be used to repair damaged hearts, brains or spinal cords.

Scientists in Cambridge have already taken cells from aborted foetuses to create a treatment for Parkinson's disease.

But they say they would get better results using the less-developed and fresher cells from embryos.

Clive Svendsen, from Cambridge University, says the work on embryo cells is an "exciting technology" which has "massive promise for cell therapy".

"The government needs to act now in order to establish the guidelines for us scientists out here trying to use this technology," he said.

'Morally dubious'

But pro-life campaigners are angered by the news.

"I don't think you can claim you are being ethical when you are allowing somebody else to do your dirty work for you," said Peter Garret, director of research at Life.

"That's effectively what is happening. The embryos are being killed, their parts are being removed abroad and then we are benefiting, in a morally dubious way."

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See also:

06 Apr 00 | Health
Embryo cloning: head to head
14 Apr 00 | Health
Thousands of embryos 'wasted'
06 Apr 00 | Health
Experts back embryo research
01 Mar 00 | Sci/Tech
Call for stem cell banks
24 Jun 99 | Sci/Tech
UK keeps human cloning ban
24 May 99 | Sci/Tech
US human embryo research backed
07 Nov 98 | Sci/Tech
Cell success has huge potential
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