Three years after therapeutic cloning was made legal in the UK, the first licence allowing scientists to clone human embryos to extract stem cells has been granted by the UK's Human Fertilisation and Embryology Authority (HFEA). The licence was awarded on 11 August to scientists from the Centre for Life at Newcastle University, who hope to create insulin-producing cells that could be transplanted into diabetic patients. The ultimate aim will be to apply the knowledge gained from understanding the development of embryos to develop treatment for degenerative diseases such as Alzheimer's, Parkinson's and diabetes. The Newcastle scientists will use left over eggs donated by couples that have undergone in-vitro fertilisation (IVF) treatment. The embryos will be destroyed before they are 14 days old and will never be allowed to develop beyond a cluster of cells the size of a pinhead. Suzi Leather, chair of HFEA, announced the decision in a statement, saying: 'After careful consideration of all the scientific, ethical, legal and medical aspects of the project, the HFEA Licence Committee agreed to grant an initial one year research licence to the Newcastle Centre of Life.' 'This is an important area of research and a responsible use of technology. The HFEA is there to make sure any research involving human embryos is scrutinised and properly regulated,' she added. Dr Colin McGuckin, reader in stem cell biology at Kingston University, said: 'The prospect of cloning human cells to understand genetic diseases, particularly rare diseases, is an exciting prospect. The move towards therapeutic cloning as a research vehicle to find a cure for genetic diseases is extremely important. However, it should not be assumed that this is an answer to all genetic diseases and particularly not to degenerative diseases, since the complexity of those disorders is unlikely to be reversed through gene therapy in the foreseeable future.' In fact, the scientists involved in the project have warned it will be at least five years before patients could receive stem cell treatment based on their work. The announcement of the authorisation is expected to fuel the ongoing debate surrounding the ethics of artificially reproducing human genetic material for scientific and medical purposes. The anti-abortion UK Pro Life Party has already announced it is considering mounting a legal challenge against the HFEA's decision to allow the research to go ahead. Dr David King, a molecular biologist and director of the Human Genetic Alert, stated: 'This research is a waste of public money and, for the first time, goes beyond the limits of ethics.' Some figures in Italy have reacted with shock and disapproval at the news. 'It's not possible to justify this decision in any way,' said Francesco D'Agostino, head of Italy's National Bioethics Committee. The head of Italy's federation of doctors' guilds', Giuseppe Del Barone, added: 'I am in favour of using stem cells for medical research but I am strongly against the whole idea of cloning.' In the UK, however, the general mood seems to be in favour of such research as long as strict legislation is put in place. A spokesperson for the British Medical Association told the BBC: 'We support strong regulation so that therapeutic cloning to extract embryonic stem cells for life-saving treatment, which most of the public supports, can go ahead while human reproductive cloning, which most of the public opposes, cannot.' MP Ian Gibson, chairman of the House of Commons science and technology select committee, said he welcomed the fact that the development was being allowed in Britain, but recognised that while the resulting medical advances could help patients with Alzheimer's, Parkinson's and various other disorders, some would view the announcement as 'the opening of Pandora's Box.' He, therefore, promised that his committee would carry out a thorough review of the whole process. In October, the United Nations will consider a proposal for an international ban on all cloning, both reproductive and therapeutic. The newly agreed licence now makes the UK's position on therapeutic cloning very clear ahead of discussions in the UN. The UK and other countries, including Belgium, Sweden and Japan, are calling for an agreement to outlaw human reproductive cloning but to permit individual countries to make their own decisions about whether therapeutic cloning should be allowed or not.
Belgium, Italy, Sweden