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Sunday, November 8, 1998 Published at 18:20 GMT


Human cloning moves closer to home

Babies could be given their own body repair kit

Edinburgh researchers behind the cloning of Dolly the sheep are in talks to develop ways of cloning human cells for transplant organs.

Dr Harry Griffin: "Seeking prospective partners"
Scientists, including researchers from the Roslin Institute where Dolly was created, are planning to collaborate with their American counterparts on a revolutionary "body repair kit".

"If and when they come to fruition we will be making an announcement, but it is too early at this stage. We are in discussion and we are exploring a number of possibilities," Dr Harry Griffin, assistant director of science at the Institute, told BBC News Online.

[ image: Could new cell technology be combined with cloning?]
Could new cell technology be combined with cloning?
But he would not confirm reports in a Sunday newspaper that one potential partner is a team from the University of Wisconsin-Madison which announced last week that it had managed to isolate and maintain human embryonic stem cells in the lab. These important cells are the "parents" of all human tissues.

It has been suggested that the technologies developed by the two research organisations might be combined to grow tissues, even whole organs, that would not be rejected by transplant patients.

Dr Harry Griffin: "Cells could be derived from the patients themself"
Dr Griffin said: "Our particular contribution might allow those cells to be derived from the patient - him or herself - thereby avoiding any immunological problems, for example of rejection of the human cells by a patient that recognises those cells as foreign."

Storing cells for the future

Some scientists believe it will soon be able to take tissue from a new born baby and clone, freeze and store cells for transplant operations, should they be needed in the future.

Dr Griffin goes a step further saying that adults too could benefit from having their own cells copied.

"You should be able to take cells from adults, as we did with Dolly, as well as store them from new-born children," he said.

But he downplayed the concept of manufacturing tissues and organs in the lab.

"For diseases like leukaemia, cell therapy is almost routine. Tissues are very much more complicated than a group of cells. When people talk about creating artificial skin and artificial organs in the test tube, I think this is definitely moving towards science fiction."

Dr Harry Griffin: Artificial creation of skin and organs "still science fiction"
He added: "I think creating a heart in the laboratory is a pretty tall order and I wouldn't personally have thought that it was possible."

Nevertheless, Dr Griffin was enthusiastic at the chance of transferring Roslin's expertise with animal experimentation to the human being.

"Most of our applications that we have been pursuing were principally concerned with the genetic modification of farm animals and the prospect of contributing to a whole new area of medicine is certainly very exciting for us."

Watchdog listening to all sides

Current law demands that research on human embryos requires a licence from the watchdog on embryo research in Britain, the Human Fertilisation and Embryology Authority (HFEA).

It is due to publish preliminary findings of a consultation paper on human cloning initiated by the Human Genetics Advisory Commission (HGAC).

In collaboration with the Centre for Genome Research in Edinburgh, the Roslin Institute's submission seeks to make a distinction between therapeutic and reproductive cloning.

Dr Harry Griffin: "Entirely wrong to create a genetic copy of a human"
"Reproductive cloning means the cloning of a human being and we remain implacably opposed to that," said Dr Griffin.

But any form of research on human embryos - for whatever purpose - has generated alarm among groups concerned about the ethics of tampering with cells from human embryos.

'A form of cannibalism'

[ image: Pro-life groups are fighting research on human embryos]
Pro-life groups are fighting research on human embryos
Peter Garrret, research director for the anti-abortion charity Life, called the new technology "a form of cannibalism".

He told BBC News Online: "One could argue that 'therapeutic' cloning is even more repugnant than pregnancy cloning. At least with pregnancy cloning you are creating a life, you're not destroying anything."

Although he recognised the therapeutic values of a technology that could treat diseases, he maintained that the embryo was "sacrosanct" and that researchers should not be allowed to tamper with it.

"You should not achieve this good objective by breaching other ethical issues."

Life has submitted its own view to the human cloning working group, describing embryo research as "an attack upon our very humanity".

The US Government, the World Health Organisation and the Council of Europe have all called for a ban on the cloning of humans.

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