Clone age

UK scientists can now create early cloned embryos in the search for treatments for serious diseases

British scientists can now create early cloned embryos in the search for treatments for serious diseases. The parliamentary vote also permits them to harvest stem cells from unwanted human embryos created during fertility treatments.

On Monday, the upper house of parliament voted in favour of the changes to the law by a surprisingly large majority. Religious leaders and other peers had argued strongly for a delay.

Since 1990, scientists have been allowed to use embryos under 14 days old for research related to fertility and contraception. In December, the elected lower house voted overwhelming in favour of extending the scope of embryo research ("Stem cell go-ahead", 20 December).

Many MPs feared that peers would pass an amendment blocking new licences until a lengthy select committee inquiry had been carried out. In the event, they voted in favour of establishing a committee to assess the new regulations after they have been introduced.

"I'm very relieved," said stem cell expert Austin Smith, at the Centre for Genome Research in Edinburgh.

"We were pleased at the result, and pleasantly surprised at the margin," said a spokesman for the Department of Health. The regulations will come into force in about a month, he said.

The Lords select committee will report later this year and the government says it will take into account any recommendations. Health minister Lord Hunt said the government will also introduce new legislation to strengthen the ban on allowing any embryo clone to live beyond 14 days.

Donated embryos

The Human Fertilisation and Embryology Authority, which regulates embryo research, says the first licences to use unwanted embryos for medical research could be granted within a few months.

But applications for research involving cloning are likely to be further down the line, says James Yeandel of the HFEA. "I think scientists will want to try deriving stem cells from donated embryos first," he says.

Scientists hope that stem cells taken from human embryos could be used to treat a wide range of illnesses, including Parkinson's disease. In theory, stem cells could be coaxed to grow into a wide range of replacement tissues, or even whole organs. Using stem cells from a cloned embryo created using a patient's DNA could allow rejection problems to be avoided.

Speaking during the pre-vote debate, some peers opposed the changes because they feared a "slippery slope" towards the birth of cloned baby. "No scientist should be given permission to play God," said Lord Ahmed.

But Lord Hunt warned peers against delaying vital research: "We owe a measure of respect to the embryo. We also owe a measure of respect to the millions of people living with these devastating illnesses and the millions who have yet to show signs of them."


By Emma Young and Andy Coghlan

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From New Scientist Online, 1230 GMT, 23 January 2001