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Thursday, June 24, 1999 Published at 14:17 GMT 15:17 UK


UK keeps human cloning ban

Opponents fear the illicit birth of human clones

The UK Government has put off a decision on whether to allow human cloning because of public concern.

Ministers are instead proposing to set up a new advisory group to investigate the therapeutic aspects of limited human cloning.

Fergus Walsh reports: "The government needs more evidence of the potential benefits"
Any form of human cloning is currently banned under UK law. For several months, scientists have been urging that the go-ahead be given for the cloning of tissues like skin and muscle.

But the Minister for Public Health, Tessa Jowell, said the pros and cons of such a move needed to be carefully weighed.

'More evidence required'

"We believe that more evidence is required of the need for such research, its potential benefits and risks, and that account should be taken of alternative approaches that might achieve the same ends," she said.

The new advisory group will be set up and chaired by the Chief Medical Officer, Professor Liam Donaldson. It is expected to begin work during the summer and report early next year.

Two official watchdogs - the Human Fertilisation and Embryology Authority (HFEA) and Human Genetics Advisory Commission (HGAC) - had recommended that human embryos should be created to help such research, including whether human tissue could be grown for transplants.

They argued that cloning for medical research would be acceptable as long as the embryos were destroyed within 14 days.

Advances in the US

The interest among scientists in therapeutic cloning follows advances in America, where researchers have succeeded in isolating and growing cultures of human embryonic stem cells.

Scientists believe that if they can control the way these cells develop, they could, theoretically, grow any type of tissue they desired in the lab.

Combined with cloning, it would then be possible to create perfect-match tissue to treat people with serious illnesses.

Diplomatic response

The advisory bodies involved in the issue were diplomatic in their reaction to the government's decision.

HGAC chair Baroness Onora O'Neill said: "After much consideration we concluded that there are no circumstances in which the reproductive cloning of human beings would be acceptable. I am pleased that the government shares that view."

For her part, HFEA chair Ruth Deech said: "In Ministers are to be congratulated on their decision to consider this issue further, and we look forward to helping with their deliberations."

UK 'could be left behind'

The issue has stirred strong emotions and led to a huge divide between scientists and pro-life campaigners.

Dr Simon Best, managing director of Geron Biomed, the commercial arm of the Roslin Institute which cloned Dolly the sheep, said the UK could now be left behind in the race to exploit stem cell research.

"We're quite disappointed that the government is not willing to endorse the recommendation to allow cloning for stem cell research.

"This work has the potential to provide completely new treatments for a wide range of diseases for which no remedy exists at present.

"Research groups in this country will be stuck, and there is a real risk that Britain is going to be left behind. This is not just about replacing existing treatments.

"It's a whole new market which could benefit the economy, and an area in which we are very smart at the moment," he insisted.

But Peter Garratt, research director of the pro-life charity Life, said: "From the moment a complete human embryo comes into existence, its status as a unique new member of our species must be acknowledged and respected.

"Attention needs to be drawn to the fact that legalising so-called 'therapeutic' cloning will provide the ideal bridge across which scientists and pharmaceutical companies will march toward full pregnancy cloning, which will yield massive profits. Individual cloned children will sell for thousands of pounds."

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Internet Links

The Council for Responsible Genetics

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