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Wednesday, 27 February, 2002, 12:45 GMT
Q&A: Therapeutic cloning - what next?
What does the House of Lords' decision mean?

The body that regulates research on embryos in the UK, the Human Fertilisation and Embryology Authority, can now start issuing licences to scientists who want to use cloning technology to create embryos for stem cell research.

Why do scientists want to do this?

Stem cells are fascinating because they can turn into virtually any kind of cell. Researchers want to find a way to grow tissues to replace those in the body damaged by disease or injury.

What kinds of cures are they looking for?

Diseases like Alzheimer's which involve degeneration of the brain are an obvious target, as are spinal cord injuries, cancer, heart disease and Parkinson's.

How long will it take?

The research is at a very basic stage. Researchers are still investigating how to control and direct the growth of stem cells.

It could be many years before practical treatments are generally available and there is no guarantee of success.

Are there alternatives to using embryos?

Yes. Stem cells can also be taken from blood in an umbilical cord after birth, from adult bone marrow, and possibly from "reprogrammed" adult cells. The work done with adult stem cells has already shown much promise.

Why then do scientists want to go ahead with cloning?

The Department of Health's expert group says that, in theory, stem cells from embryos could be easier to work with and ultimately lead to a wider range of therapies. The research is at such a basic stage that researchers want to explore all the possible avenues.

Also, cloning allows for the possibility of creating perfect-match tissues. Replacement cells derived from the patients themselves would be far less likely to provoke an immune response and be rejected.

Cells derived from other sources would most likely have to be implanted in conjunction with the patients taking anti-rejection drugs, which can sometimes have serious side-effects.

The work could also show scientists how to reprogram adult cells, such as skin cells, to adopt a more primative state so that they can then be turned into other cell types.

What will happen to embryos after cells are taken from them?

UK law does not permit them to grow outside the body for more than 14 days, at which stage they are a tiny bundle of cells visible only under a microscope.

The embryos will be destroyed, as is the case with surplus embryos left over after successful IVF treatment.

Does the decision open the doors to creating baby clones?

The Department of Health says no. Its expert group said in 2000 that an inadvertent slide into reproductive cloning was "not a realistic prospect" because the HFEA operates stringent controls.

Will scientists move to the UK as a result of the decision?

The decision means that the UK has relatively liberal legislation in this field.

Political pressure in the US has led to a ban on government-funded research, though private companies face far fewer restrictions.

And in Germany, for example, researchers may not make embryo clones but may import them from abroad.

Scientists might well decide to come to the UK if they see that research licences are issued and the regulations do not change.

What are the objections to the research?

Groups opposed to therapeutic cloning say the embryonic research is an attack on the sanctity of life and will inevitably, whatever the UK Government says, lead to someone, somewhere attempting to make a baby clone of an individual.

The various "Pro-life" groups believe the research should concentrate instead on non-embryonic sources of stem cells; they say stem cells derived from adult tissues are showing promise way above what some scientists are prepared to admit.

They accuse the Lords' committee of hearing evidence only from supporters of research on embryos. The committee's work was, they claim, a cosmetic exercise.

Professor Jack Scarisbrick, chairman of Life, told the BBC: "What the committee is saying is that we can allow [stem cells] to come from new kinds of human beings... manufactured in laboratories - to just cannibalise them to produce the stem cells.

"We are saying there is a much better source of stem cells - ethically better and medially better - in adults themselves; in born people."

Prof Jack Scarisbrick, Life
"Of course, we all want to see these diseases cured"
Prof Richard Gardner, Royal Society
The work will tell us how to "reprogram" adult cells
See also:

27 Feb 02 | Sci/Tech
Researchers welcome cloning decision
27 Feb 02 | Sci/Tech
Lords back cloning research
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