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Tuesday, 7 November, 2000, 11:55 GMT
Call for cloning research
Stem cells in lab
Stem cells are used to grow human tissue
Leading UK scientists have told MPs that cloning research using early human embryos will be needed to develop new treatments for crippling diseases and injuries.

The Royal Society says limited human cloning to harvest vital stem cells from embryos should be allowed, as well as research into adult stem cells.

Stem cells are "master" cells that have the capacity to grow into different tissues of the body. The tissues could help victims of diseases such as diabetes, Parkinson's or multiple sclerosis, and people who have suffered spinal injuries.

MPs are due to vote on whether to allow such research during the current session of Parliament.

A report on the issue, explaining the Royal Society's position, was given to MPs on Tuesday.

Its leading author, Professor Richard Gardner, said the society's 21 years of experience in the field showed that using embryo cells presented the best chance to help sufferers.

"Members of both Houses should accept that this research on early embryos is scientifically necessary if we are to ensure that patients benefit from the full range of potential treatments as quickly as possible," Professor Gardner told a briefing of MPs and Lords.

"Embryo research is very strictly regulated in the UK and we believe an extension of the present law to allow studies on stem cell therapies is highly desirable."

Potential hurdles

The Royal Society report concludes that despite "exciting recent reports" about breakthroughs in developing adult stem cells in mice, science cannot turn its back on embryo research.

It says that the research with mice is still at a very early stage, and that "it is possible we will never be able to overcome all of the hurdles blocking the path to their potential use therapeutically".

Harvesting stem cells from embryo cloning appears more promising, they believe.

"This can only be determined by allowing more research that will enable a critical evaluation of the potential use of stem cells from both sources," says the report.

Progress on new therapies could be hindered, the working group concluded, unless the 1990 Human Fertilisation and Embryology Act was extended so that embryos before 14 days of development could be used for studies on stem cells, in addition to the research purposes currently allowed.

"Scientists will need a license from the Human Fertilisation and Embryology Authority to produce and carry out research on embryos obtained through cloning technology," said Professor Gardner.

"Implanting a cloned embryo into a womb will not be allowed, so we will not see reproductive cloning as a result of the proposed extension of the 1990 Act."

'Master' cells

Stem cells have the unique capacity to replicate themselves and to generate more specialised cell types as they multiply.

Many scientists believe that stem cells extracted from embryo clones hold the key to future treatments for devastating conditions such as stroke, Alzheimer's disease or multiple sclerosis.

But "pro-life" campaigners are against the research. These groups believe that all life is sacred, even an embryo a few days old composed of a small number of cells.

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09 Oct 00 | Sci/Tech
Step forward in stem cell control
30 Jul 00 | Sci/Tech
Body parts cloning 'to go ahead'
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