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Wednesday, 16 August, 2000, 02:57 GMT 03:57 UK
Decision due on human cloning
Lab BBC
Ministers have to balance politics, science and ethics
Scientists in the UK should know on Wednesday whether they can proceed with a limited form of human cloning for medical research.


We are suspicious (about) the real reason they want to be able to do this

Life

The government is expected to announce that it will give a cautious go-ahead to so-called therapeutic cloning, which involves the creation of embryos that can be "harvested" for special cells.

The decision, which could herald a revolution in medicine, will stir a major ethical debate.

According to a report in the Sunday Telegraph newspaper, Prime Minister Tony Blair will announce a free vote on the issue.

The announcement will follow the long awaited publication of a report on the merits of therapeutic cloning by an expert panel led by England's Chief Medical Officer, Professor Liam Donaldson.

Degenerative diseases

Scientists want to source embryonic stem cells from human embryos less than 14 days old. These special cells are capable of developing into any kind of tissue in the body, including nerves, muscle, organs and bone.

Embryo BBC
Human embryo: Cloning raises ethical concerns
Researchers believe it may be possible to direct the cells to become selected types of replacement tissue which could be used to treat a range of degenerative diseases such as Parkinson's.

Patients would be cloned to solve the problem of transplant tissue rejection.

The less-than-14-day-old embryos that resulted would be harvested for the special cells and then destroyed.

Some experts believe it may be possible one day to "grow" whole replacement organs in the laboratory.

Medical revolution

But for some religious leaders and "pro-life" groups, therapeutic cloning will never be acceptable.

A spokesman for the anti-abortion group Life said: "We are suspicious that the real reason they want to be able to do this is for reproductive purposes.

"We think they want to be able to clone an embryo, implant it and go ahead with a full pregnancy, then kill that human being for its heart and other organs to be transplanted."

The research needed to bring about the new therapies is currently banned in the UK.

As the law stands, scientists can only work with stem cells less than 14 days old to carry out research into understanding fertility, reproduction or congenital disorders.

Ethical debate

Using stem cells for any other purpose is not allowed, and neither is human cloning for whatever purpose.

Last year, the UK Government set up an advisory group to examine the issue of relaxing the laws to allow therapeutic cloning, headed by Professor Liam Donaldson.

Ministers received the report in May and have sat on it ever since. Some political commentators and the scientists who want to exploit the cloning technology have accused the government of running away from making a decision.

But pressure is mounting on the government to make a statement of policy as some of the scientists have threatened to leave for the US or other countries to carry out the research if the matter is not brought to a resolution soon.

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See also:

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