Britain was yesterday placed at the forefront of global research into potential stem cell therapies for a range of incurable diseases as the go-ahead was given for the cloning of human embryos.
In a controversial move that delighted scientists and infuriated pro-life campaigners, the Human Fertilization and Embryology Authority gave a team at Newcastle University the first license to create embryos and extract from them stem cells for research.
Scientists believe stem cells -- which have the potential to form any of the body's hundreds of different tissue types -- hold the key to treating conditions such as Parkinson's and Alzheimer's diseases and diabetes. But critics say the work is unethical and unnecessary, and warn it could help maverick scientists trying to clone a human baby.
Miodrag Stojkovic, from the university's Institute of Human Genetics, said: "We are ready to go as soon as the paperwork is sorted out. It has taken a year of work, and I am most pleased that the HFEA has recognized the potential of this technology in modern medicine."
The Newcastle team will use the same technique used to create Dolly the sheep. They plan to insert DNA from skin cells into eggs left over from IVF treatment, which have had their own genetic material removed. Nurturing the eggs for six to eight days produces a tiny ball of around 100 cells, no bigger than a pinhead, from which stem cells can be extracted.
If the skin DNA was taken from a diabetic, then, in theory, the resulting embryonic stem cells could be grown into new pancreatic tissue and transplanted back into the patient with no risk of rejection.
"What we want to do is to see if these embryonic stem cells have the ability to differentiate into insulin-producing cells," said Dr. Stojkovic. The scientists hope to produce the first stem cells within two years, though it could take at least five before any new therapies are tested in clinical trials.
Cloning human embryos to make babies is outlawed in the U.K., but so-called therapeutic cloning, where the embryo is destroyed after the stem cells are extracted, was made legal under strict guidelines in 2002.
Last year the Newcastle scientists became one of the first two groups in Britain to derive embryonic stem cells from spare IVF embryos. It asked the HFEA to allow the cloning research in February.
The chairwoman of the HFEA, Suzi Leather, said: "After careful consideration of ... the project, the committee agreed to grant an initial one-year research license. This is an important area of research and a responsible use of technology."
The first task for the Newcastle scientists will be to repeat the work of colleagues in South Korea, who in February cloned the world's first human embryos and extracted stem cells. The South Korean team used dozens of fresh eggs from volunteers, which are more suitable for cloning than those left over after IVF.
Pro-life groups said they were taking legal advice in a bid to overturn the ruling. Jack Scarisbrick, national chairman of the group Life, said: "The decision is not unexpected given the HFEA's track record.
"Therapeutic cloning involves the manufacture of a new kind of human being with the express purpose of destroying that life once stem cells have been stripped from it. It is ... trivialization of human life of a most frightening kind."
The U.N. will discuss moves to ban reproductive and therapeutic cloning in October.