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The BBC's Tom Heap
"It would have to come from a clone of the patient"
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Dr Evan Harris and Dr Michael Jarmulowicz
Discuss the moral and ethical issues of research
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Tuesday, 19 December, 2000, 17:52 GMT
Politicians to vote on embryo research
MP
Labour's Anne Begg: "Duty to pass amendment"
UK politicians were debating on Tuesday whether to extend the research done on human embryos.

The British Government wants to relax the existing rules, so that special cells can be taken from embryos at a very early stage of development.


My view is that we are only a couple of years away from cloning human beings

Peter Garrett, Life
Researchers believe these embryonic stem cells will revolutionise the treatment of degenerative diseases, such as Alzheimer's and Parkinson's, particularly when the cells are obtained using the cloning technology that produced Dolly the sheep.

But the highly controversial nature of so-called therapeutic cloning, and embryo experimentation in general, means that MPs will get a free vote on an amendment to the 1990 Human Fertilisation and Embryology Act.

As it stands, the Act permits licensed research using human embryos only for strictly limited purposes related to infertility, and for a limited period of 14 days. The amendment would extend the Act so that early-stage embryos could also be used for research into non-congenital diseases.

Slippery slope

Strong lobbying from outside interest groups has ensured the vote is a high-profile occasion.

Peter Garrett, research director at the anti-abortion charity Life, said: "Firstly, to deliberately create and destroy human life is dehumanising to the scientists who carry it out and the society that licenses it.

"Secondly, once you open the flood gates on the production of human cloned embryos, you are setting up the preconditions for full pregnancy cloning. My view is that we are only a couple of years away from cloning human beings."

ES BBC
A blastocyst: Embryonic stem cells are "harvested" from early-stage embryos
His fears were echoed in the House of Commons by Shadow Health Secretary Liam Fox. But he said it was unrealistic to think such research could be halted and so tough rules were needed to set the moral boundaries. He said: "The benefits of the medical revolution are immense from limb grafts and transplantation to the elimination of diseases.

"Now, with genetic research we are dealing with the building blocks of life and our perception of what it means to be a human being is quite literally being put under the microscope. But the medical revolution carries with it moral, ethical and philosophical consequences and our ability to deal with these matters sometimes lags behind our technical knowledge.

"Just because we can do something does not mean we have to. We need to establish a clear framework within which to operate." The rules should have been introduced in a new Bill rather than in amendments to existing legislation, he said.

Treating the untreatable

But Labour's Anne Begg told the commons that it had a duty to pass the amendment.

"Stem cell research has the potential to act as the key which opens the door to many advances in our knowledge and our ability to treat some of the most heart-rending conditions that are presently untreatable," said the Aberdeen South MP, who suffers from a genetic condition called Gaucher's disease which results in brittle bones.

"Please don't step back from that vision. The only slippery slope is the one that leads to making many people's lives so much, much better."

When in 1998 scientists first isolated and cultured embryonic stem cells in the lab, it was hailed as a major technical advance.

Researchers realised that if they could control the development of these special cells they could create an unlimited range of replacement tissues with the potential to treat a host of conditions such as Parkinson's or Alzheimer's, diabetes and even damaged organs or broken spinal cords.

When sourced from embryos that have been produced through the cloning of the patient's own genetic material, the replacement tissues would also avoid the rejection problems that bedevil current transplant procedures.

It would free patients from the rigorous, life-long drug regimes they currently have to follow after surgery.

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See also:

17 Nov 00 | Sci/Tech
UK 'developing anti-science culture'
07 Nov 00 | Sci/Tech
Call for cloning research
14 Aug 00 | Sci/Tech
Scientists claim world cloning first
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