LONDON – Britain's reproductive science regulator said Wednesday it was considering the country's first request to clone human embryos for scientific research.
A team at Newcastle University (search) said they had asked the Human Fertilization and Embryology Authority (search) for a license to create embryos from which stem cells would be harvested for medical research. The researchers hope eventually to create insulin-producing cells that could be transplanted into diabetic patients.
The authority said its research committee was meeting Wednesday to consider the request, but that there would be no immediate announcement of a decision.
Britain legalized therapeutic cloning in 2001, becoming the first country in the world to do so. Scientists wishing to perform the process in Britain need a license from the Human Fertilization and Embryology Authority, which has not yet granted any.
If permission is granted, scientists may create cloned embryos only for purposes of extracting stem cells for medical research. The extraction, which is done when the embryo is a few days old, means the clones cannot develop into babies. The embryos are only allowed to be developed until they are 14 days old.
The Newcastle scientists hope to clone embryos by implanting nuclei from the skin tissue of donors in donated eggs. Scientists envision extracting stem cells — which have the potential to turn into every type of cell in the human body — from the cloned embryo so that they would be a perfect transplant match for the donor.
"We are looking at five to 10 years before we can even begin to think about having readily available cures," Newcastle professor Alison Murdoch told BBC radio. "But we have got to start somewhere and this is so promising we can't afford not to let it happen."
Last year, the Roslin Institute (search) — creator of Dolly the Sheep, the world's first cloned mammal — was granted a license to carry out stem cell research on donated embryos created as a result of In-vitro Fertilization treatment. Roslin said in April it was considering applying for a therapeutic cloning license but had not yet done so.
A South Korean-led team reported in February that it had carried out the world's first successful cloning of a human embryo and the culling of stem cells from it.
Opponents of therapeutic cloning urged the embryology authority to reject the Newcastle request, saying it could eventually lead to cloning to duplicate human babies, which is illegal in Britain.
"This research is a waste of public money, and crosses important ethical lines for the first time," said David King, a molecular biologist who heads the anti-cloning group Human Genetics Alert (search). "It is very unlikely to produce anything medically useful, but it will be a great help for those who want to clone babies."