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Monday, 26 November, 2001, 11:35 GMT
Controversy over human embryo clone
Clone, e-biomed
The "first human embryo clone" is reported in e-biomed
A US company's announcement that it has created a human embryo clone has been hailed as an incredible scientific achievement by some - and decried as a dangerous step by others.

The research firm behind the development, Advanced Cell Technology (ACT), is stressing that its aim is to use the technology as a source of special cells that can be used in novel medical treatments and not to create a human being.

The president is 100% opposed to any cloning of human embryos

White House aide
The news has drawn swift protests from religious and political leaders. "Some may call it a medical breakthrough. I believe it is a moral breakdown," said Raymond Flynn, president of the US National Catholic Alliance and a former US ambassador to the Vatican.

"Human reproduction is now in the hands of men, when it rightfully belongs in the hands of God."

ACT vice president Dr Robert Lanza said people should concentrate on the medical benefits that will come from being able to copy cells.

"Our intention is not to create cloned human beings, but rather to make lifesaving therapies for a wide range of human disease conditions, including diabetes, strokes, cancer, Aids, and neurodegenerative disorders such as Parkinson's and Alzheimer's disease."

'Virgin birth'

But there was little support for the ACT position at the White House. President Bush is opposed to all forms of cloning and supported moves in the House of Representatives recently to have the whole area - reproductive and therapeutic cloning - made illegal.

"The president is 100% opposed to any cloning of human embryos," a White House aide told CNN.

ACT reported its work in the electronic journal e-biomed: The Journal of Regenerative Medicine.

Not only did the team describe how it made embryo clones using nuclear transfer methods pioneered in animals, it also revealed details of how human eggs were encouraged to start dividing on their own - without fertilization from a sperm or the transfer of genetic material from another cell.

This process known as parthenogenesis occurs in insects and microbes but not naturally in higher animals. Eggs usually dump half their genetic material but if gathered early enough contain a full set of genes, the researchers said.

"You hesitate to describe it as a virgin birth, but it is sort of in that vein," said John Rennie, editor-in-chief of Scientific American magazine, which also published a lay article by ACT on the same day as the company's technical paper appeared in e-biomed.

"That is an amazing accomplishment in its own right and, like cloning, something that people once thought was impossible in mammals."

'Real interest'

Dr Ian Wilmut, who led the team that produced Dolly the sheep clone using the cell nuclear replacement technique at the Roslin Institute, Edinburgh, UK, struck a note of caution over the ACT announcement.

"It's really only a preliminary first step because the furthest that the embryo developed was to have six cells at a time when it should have had more than 200 - and it had clearly already died."

It's really only a preliminary first step

Dr Ian Wilmut, Roslin Institute
Dr Wilmut said it would have been better if ACT had waited until its work was more advanced before making the announcement.

"If they had reached the stage from which you could derive the stem cells that have such potential in medicine - that would have been of real interest."

And the noted bioethicist Dr Donald Bruce, from the Church of Scotland's Society, Religion and Technology Project, said the ACT's claims might be premature.

"At this stage, producing pre-embryos with no more than six cells is no guarantee that Advanced Cell Technologies have achieved the viability needed to produce human stem cells, let alone cloned human babies.

He added: "Many uncertainties need to be resolved about the subsequent development before anyone can say this is the breakthrough which it is claimed to be, whether for good or ill."

Cow-human hybrid

Embryonic stem cells are the "master cells" that have the potential to develop into virtually every other type of cell in the body. Scientists hope to be able to control the development of these cells so they can be used to replace the failing cells that cause degenerative diseases.

Researchers say that using a cloning process to get at these cells will ensure future treatments will match perfectly the genetic profile of patients - and will consequently work much better.

In December 1998, researchers at Kyunghee University in South Korea claimed to have produced the world's first human embryo clone. The scientists involved said they destroyed the object soon after seeing it divide several times.

Many researchers around the world doubted the experiment ever took place.

ACT itself claimed in the November of that year that it had fused the genetic material from a human cell with the empty egg from a cow to make a hybrid embryo.

The BBC's Geraint Vincent
"The fraught ethical arguments... are currently being heard in the House of Lords"
John Smeaton, Soc for protection of unborn children
"It is a deeply disturbing development"
Michael West, Advanced Cell Technology
"We think the future can be quite bright"
Dr Ian Wilmut, Roslin Institute
"It's really only a preliminary first step"
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